Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

I’M STILL HERE (with apologies to Stephen Sondheim and Elaine Stritch)

Lest my children start receiving condolence calls and cards from friends who have assumed that such a gap in my blog must surely mean that I have given up the ghost, I hereby announce that as soon as I can muster something more interesting for you to read about than my daily walks in the woods, and the usual philosophical yearnings for a better time, and hope for relief from the inertia that plagues so many of us who miss our buddies and our hugs, I will be back in earnest.

I may slip in a few photos of flowering bushes and plants, assuring you that spring is well on its way despite the cold weather of the past two weeks, logs covered with bright green moss, impish mushrooms on a bed of grass that refuse to believe anyone would step on them, or the blessed sun coming through the cedar trees outside my kitchen window.

Remember, this is not Denver, Palm Springs, or Phoenix. For many months our sun is not an everyday thing and, thus, incredibly precious. You may also notice that we talk about it a lot. And because of our latitude and Daylight Savings Time, it comes early and stays late…when it comes. With all the chaos and suffering going on in the world today, Whidbey Island is where you want to be as spring and summer approach. And since I wrote those last few lines, it is upon us in all its glory!

I decided to start with a few photos from early January, including my Christmas tree in full regalia and our one snowstorm, and bring you up to date with the burgeoning spring foliage. Just imagine gorgeous magnolia and dogwood with a variety of rhododendron in fast pursuit. Who ever said there wasn’t light at the end of the tunnel?

Remember my surprise Christmas tree? Well, it finally got fully trimmed! And stayed with us until its ceremonial burning in January.

There were even bunnies in town for Christmas!

Walks in the woods…from this (snow)

. …to this. I’ve been doing more exploring and finding more places to walk on the island.

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I go mad for mushrooms! They’re everywhere and usually adorned with moss.

 

On Whidbey Island there are bunnies galore and they’ll eat right out of your hand, especially if you have a bunch of carrot greens. But they’re beginning to think they own the place as you can see by a few of my friends.

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Cary found these bunnies at the Fairground, just waiting for a handout. Too bad we had nothing. I took this one for my two great grandsons.

I’ve often mentioned the cedar trees here in the Northwest, for they have become my favorites…so complicated in their branch formation and so expressive as they wave their feathery plumes in the air. I could watch them for hours. Here is the tree outside the kitchen window…

And here are others next to my upstairs porch. They’ve become part of my family.

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I promised you pictures of Tom’s flowers last year, but they didn’t seem appropriate for December. Now I offer you a few samples, all of which survived the winter. Well, why wouldn’t they? He took them inside every night to warm up! Now they stay outside 24/7, a sure sign of spring!

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Gratitude and compassion are also big in our present environment. All you have to do is watch the PBS News Hour to see people hungry and desperate, without homes or jobs. And think about the thousands who have lost loved ones in the past year. My youngest son, Robert, had a close brush with death a month ago when a car careened into him on a California highway at 4 AM, going over 100 mph and being chased by the police. Those close calls make you count your blessings a hundedfold. And in those moments of intense gratitude, most of the old complaints fall away.

In the midst of all our troubles, however, there’s one thing that we can’t let get away from us…our sense of humor. It’s right up there with love and compassion. Supposedly we have all this time to analyze ourselves and examine our faults and make changes, but I have found it heartening to know that some of the faults pinned onto old age, like crabbiness and puttering and forgetfulness, really have nothing to do with that. It’s all because of the pandemic. Isn’t that wonderful? Now let’s see if they go away soon. As you can see, delusion also goes well with humor.

I had all kinds of New Year’s resolutions last December, you may remember, one of which was my attempt to overcome vanity by letting my hair go white. But I was concerned about the chemicals inherent in dye and asked my hairdresser, Anthony, whether he thought it might cause brain damage. “It’s too late for you, Meg,” he answered. If I weren’t a fervent believer in honesty, that would have been the end of him!

Well, my good intentions lasted about three months until a friend asked me what was wrong with vanity. I was mulling that one over, when I tried on the white wig I told you I was buying, as a test run.

Which one do you like better? Please don’t inundate me with negative comments, for although the wig didn’t turn out to be Dolly Partonesque, as I had expected, it sure made a lot of people laugh. And, as you can imagine, it gave me the necessary cold feet to reverse my resolution…at least for the moment. I may reconsider when December rolls around.

A lie, or shall I say a popular bromide that is being spread throughout our land by computer geniuses, who want to salve their consciences about the story they are feeding all of us, and is causing dire consequences in the older population, is that learning each new iteration of technology is good for the aging brain and will keep us alert, on our toes, happy, and satisfied. A feeling of great accomplishment will fill our hearts as we master each minute change in Windows or WordPress, and, unscrambling dropped messages and solving the disappearance of treasured manuscripts and photos will challenge us as never before. It’s either that or ending up in a mental institution spending our days pressing keys and shouting, “Now what did I do? All I did was press ‘open recent’ and the screen went dark!”

We all have friends and acquaintances who extol their virtue by pointing out that they do not have cell phones, emails, or Facebook (I’m with them there), and certainly would not waste their life on the internet. They prefer to be in the 20th century, they say. It was plenty good enough for them, thank you. I listen and, at times, sympathize with their misguided naivete as they strive to keep life simple, but also wonder if they’d feel the same way should they need a heart transplant. Nevertheless, on the other hand, there has to be balance. As the vernacular goes, a computer can be a time suck, but it sure is great if you want to look up a word, google an obscure fact, download the thesaurus, find out who is married to a particular celebrity at the moment, bask in the largesse of YouTube, or just find the latest news. In fact, it can get you to your bank account in a jiffy if you remember your password and know how to x out all the ads and miscellaneous information. And that comes with time. And isn’t patience a virtue? You see, we’ve come full circle.

But moving right along. The discussion among a percentage of Americans as to whether they will take one of the vaccines available to fight Covid-19 has no credibility with me. Just a I supported the vaccines that rid us of such killers as smallpox, polio, and tuberculosis, I feel that we owe it to ourselves and our community to participate in eradicating this scourge. Let me tell you, I was mighty glad to get mine, FINALLY! And getting the vaccine in the initial wave was difficult and time-consuming. It felt, at times, like Black Friday at Best Buy. Pharmacies sent frantic emails instructing you to get your appointment NOW and by the time you jumped through all the technological hoops, there were no appointments left. At the same time, you were calling other sources and sitting on “hold,” listening to someone’s idea of music, repetitive ads, or the news you had already read in the morning. After bonding with your phone for longer than you care to remember, you hopped into the car, attempting to persuade the pharmacy of choice to find a slot for you. It was dog-eat-dog. Friends became competitors, especially if you happened to see one of them in line. How could they get an appointment and not think of you? They could have signed you up at the same time. Well, you say to yourself, inwardly, in a rare moment of sanity, just think of all the intrigue, the anticipation, the excitement you would have missed. Yeah, turmoil is just what you need to help you forget the weather and keep from being lonely. As if you could really be lonely with YouTube, TV, Zoom, and your cell phone to take up hours while you sit waiting for a representative of an understaffed company, whether your cell carrier or your doctor’s office, to answer. And there are numerous shows, plays, operas, lectures, and dance programs offered online at minimum prices. And many of them are superb. But the big difference is that you see them alone. There is nobody next to you to confer with, laugh or cry with. No personal touch, no real communication.

Small things in the past become big deals now….

It’s hard to put our finger on why it’s so difficult to get on an even keel and regain the balance in our life. And haven’t we all been considering traveling again? There’s that postponed wedding to attend, the invitation to spend a week at a summer cottage on the lake with friends, or a long-overdue visit to a sibling or an ailing relative. Traveling is something I’ve done with ease my whole life. I had a routine, and I had several credit cards that racked up frequent flyer miles. I knew what I needed to take, and off I went. Now I don’t even remember where I stashed my suitcase or my essential toiletry bag. It all looks like so much work, and just think of wearing a mask for six hours at a stretch on a plane full of masked bandits. Am I up for that? These are not considerations I would ever have entertained in the past. So along with the change I’ve been yearning for comes an underlying fear of what? You tell me.

And then there’s this unease about the radical adjustment in how we will dress, for most of us have worn the same “outfit” every day for months, at least in the cold Northwest—long underwear, long pants, and a plain sweater under a fleece jacket. Add your layers of rain gear or a down jacket on to that. No makeup (remember, those masks can get mightily smudged) and nothing fancy. Earrings are used once in a while to be sure the holes in your ears don’t grow back together. And, on the plus side, you’ve had a chance to wear out the clothes and shoes you have because who wants to go to a store all masked up and try anything on? Not I. Ah, life has been so simple. Now, all of a sudden, you’re going to be in society, again. You won’t be on Zoom. You’ll be in a room with people. Think of it!

All those activities that you took for granted, including browsing through a shopping mall, doctor’s visits that have been postponed, and dinner parties, are starting up again. Exciting? Yes. Formidable? They can be. Daunting? Only time will tell. Good luck!

For those of you who are into gardening or those who are starting out and finding it incredibly satisfying and important in our world today, I recommend my daughter, Cary’s, videos. Here is her YouTube channel. She runs the garden program for the South Whidbey school district, and this past year has been a most unusual challenge for her. Children are now coming back to school, but when school was closed, families received “starts” of numerous vegetables like lettuce, kale, tomatoes and many more to grow in their home gardens, so the students could continue their education about the earth and its miraculous ways.

An outdoor classroom was built by volunteers so classes can happen safely in rain or shine. Check it out. Remember, however, that growing plants in the Northwest is not the same as on the East Coast. Each area has its special parameters. But you’ll find that out soon enough! Another one of those fun challenges in life.

My final message to you is a poem written by Rumi at the end of his life, which I quoted at every slide show or presentation I made about travel and living life off the beaten track. The poet, Judith Adams, reminded me of it at one of her Friday afternoon poetry discussions. And it is especially applicable to the unsettling time we’ve been going through. I hope it brings a smile to your face and a recognition of what is really important in the crazy, unpredictable, fearful time in which we live…and points out the perks that come with a long life.

Run from what’s comfortable. Forget safety. Live where you fear to live. Destroy your reputation. Be notorious. I have tried prudent planning long enough. From now on I’ll be mad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT I DIDN’T DO THIS YEAR AND WHAT I PROBABLY WON’T DO NEXT YEAR

Here is my guide to helpful, productive, and realistic New Year’s Resolutions from someone who has a list second to none and has learned more from her recently incorporated organization, Procrastinate Now, than all the uplifting motivational TED Talks of 2020.

I have kept notes from 1945 to the present and often browse, nostalgically, through my admonitions to be more respectful to my parents and stop teasing my baby sister, who is now 89 years old. I also have jettisoned the ones that encourage me to practice my violin four hours a day in the hopes of replacing Heifetz in the event that he dies. That goes hand-in-hand with my vow to save the world by lining up with Clifton Fadiman’s World Federalism Now, and getting a doctorate in political theory from Harvard.

But that was long ago and none of my setbacks (getting married, having children, knocking myself out to earn a living in music education) have deterred me from resolving that next year will be better. And, truth be told, there have been many wonderful “next years” filled with travel, love, journaling, writing a travel memoir but not the great American novel, and trekking in the Himalayas. Still, there is this feeling that no matter the nobility of my resolutions, I experience a lack of accomplishment, spending too much time on frivolous, unproductive, superficial, everyday activities (cooking, cleaning, organizing the front porch, retrieving lost emails, and fighting with Microsoft Word) that will never change the world in any profound way or get Trump to give me the Medal of Honor, one of my biggest disappointments, and, now and forever, a lost opportunity. I will have to be satisfied with the Autoharp Hall of Fame.

But the past is the past and ever shall be, world without end, Amen (you never get over being a preacher’s kid).

Obviously, I’ve managed to survive the pandemic so far, for which I’m grateful, and also survive the many phone calls from long lost friends who, when they hear my voice say, “Oh, is that you? Uh, how are you? Is everything alright?” Translation: “Are you still alive?”

I started out the year with a bang, removing from my large storage locker my plethora of boxes, old furniture, miscellaneous detritus and old college papers attesting to the fact that I once studied Russian and Constitutional Law, using my youthful brain.

All of this was moved to daughter Cary’s extra cabin, not far from my house, which had heretofore been used as a Buddhist meditation room and library. This was her gracious contribution to her mother’s sanity, and, very definitely, to hers.

Here are my resolutions and what I hope will be helpful suggestions for living in this most unusual time in our history.

Goals I set for 2020 that were not entirely attained:

Resolution 1: Clean up that mess! Sort the old letters, put the pictures in albums, make a Shutterfly album for each child, decide what to do with the art work of five elementary school children, the youngest of whom is now 60, and cull those ancient papers.

  • Did I do it? I leave that up to you….

 
Resolution 2: Walk up and down hill and dale and into the woods for at least 5 miles a day. Use your iPhone to check number of steps and heartbeat. If heartbeat gets too high, come back later in the day—if it doesn’t rain, which it probably will.

  • I cannot tell a lie. I was lucky to get two miles in, because I was still recovering from the unintended broken back in 2019 that inspired Resolution 3.

 
Resolution 3: Try to stay upright when running, to avoid crashing into the fender of a parked car, and breaking your hand and your 5th lumbar vertebra, which you did last year. Lower the possibility of further dramatic episodes that ruin your life and impact negatively on your children.

  • I was doing fine until July 21st when I fell backwards into the garden shed and fractured my left arm at the shoulder. I honestly don’t know what I’ll do for an encore.

 
Resolution 4: Finish the family memoir which you started when you were 80 or so and forgot about when you moved from the lights of Broadway to the fog of Whidbey. Pray once a week for the muse to return.

  • I did make headway. This should be off the list by 2022.

 
Resolution 5: Take all your Master Classes, which were the generous gift of your second daughter, Martha, even the ones about Jamaican cooking, hoping to expand your world and become the Renaissance Woman you have always wanted to be.

  • I’m still not a Renaissance Woman, but that doesn’t deter me. I’m making strides.

 
Now to start over on a more optimistic note with the thought of an exciting New Year and a new America on the horizon, and a new president in the White House, but, unfortunately, a very old and unwelcome virus terrifying the world. I, like so many of you, have been doing a lot of soul-searching, which, if not regulated, can turn into wheel-spinning, with its layers of fear and anxiety. As I see it, this is the challenge: to keep our eyes on what’s really important at this very moment, do our part to make things better no matter how small the deed may seem, and trust that in the long run we, as a nation, will have learned some difficult, but essential lessons.

Goals I set for 2021….Hope springs eternal:

Resolution 1: Study more about poetry, and experiment with various forms, expanding your expertise in doggerel to rap, stream-of-consciousness, and something that will be bad enough to be accepted by The New Yorker.

Resolution 2: Spoiler alert! Publish your family memoir, now in its third iteration, on your website, and hope that your friends on Facebook will give it the accolades that will put it on the NYTimes Best Seller list, even though you are not selling it, but giving it away.

Resolution 3: Return to Nepal with your daughter, Cary, and hope that she is still game for trekking and singing you up the trail with her Buddhist mantras. God bless Tara! And Cary.

Resolution 4: Do not look for another dramatic “break.” One more shattered humerus is unacceptable. Try going in a more productive and enlightened direction. Slowly and carefully and mindfully!

Resolution 5: Make this the year that you jettison some of your major faults, but not all of them, because your children have to have something to talk about. The one that strikes me as an ongoing cross to bear is vanity. And the longer I live on Whidbey Island the more I realize that I stand out as the only prehistoric Valentine without white hair. It’s almost embarrassing, especially since both my daughters are silver-haired. So, to get with the program, I have decided to dispense with the color and see what turns up. Or rather, what shows up. To help me transition, I went online and ordered the cheapest white wig I could find and decided that I would try it for awhile to see if I could adjust. I imagine I will look a little like Dolly Parton with wrinkles, which wouldn’t be half bad. Yes, it’s that kind of wig. Keep tuned and send me your words of encouragement. I’m sure there are more difficult decisions I will be called upon to make before the Grim Reaper comes for me, but giving up a favorite cornerstone of one’s vanity is not to be underestimated.

Resolution 6: Accept the fact that you’re not perfect and neither are your children. Become more non-judgmental and give criticism a rest. And it would help to add a little equanimity into the mix.

I’m looking forward to next December. Not only will I have some answers to my hopeful resolutions, but I may be in the kind of shape where I can add a few push-ups and sit-ups to my list of healthy habits that I believe are so necessary for coping with this crazy, frantic, exciting, and interesting world.

I wish you success with your resolutions and a marvelous 2021 in every way!

$100 FOR A CHRISTMAS TREE? YOU’RE OUT OF YOUR MIND!

“$100 for a Christmas tree? You’re out of your mind!” These were the gentle words I used when my daughter, Martha, told me what she paid for a tree in Manitou Springs, Colorado. And she was so excited about her “bargain.”

“When did you last buy a tree, Mother?” Hmmm.

“Well…not since before I moved here. Say, seven, maybe ten years ago. I’ve been using the small artificial one we bought for Chris when he was in the hospital in 2001.” Oops, I could see where this was going. Not hard to realize that I was way behind the times.

The next day my son, Tom, Nature Boy, presented me with a humongous poinsettia that dwarfed the dining room table, along with a huge fir tree for the bargain price of only $52.00, tax included. “Don’t worry, Mom. You only have to pay half.” He’s always been a stickler for fairness.

Where have I been? What planet am I living on? When will this insane inflation stop? Cool it, Meg, it ain’t gonna.

Tom bought a stand at the thrift store for $3.00 and secured the tree, which reached to the ceiling. It was gorgeous…dense, dark green, fragrant. I sat down in the living room to read my New Yorker, but after a few pages I stopped. The tree held me. It took over. There seemed to be nothing else in the room. And it was completely bare, as if it were still in the woods. Just the tree.

I had retrieved my decorations from storage, but they sat on the deep window sills, unopened. There was no hurry. No children coming, no stockings, no family gathering, no presents under the tree, and not even a white sheet for snow. But I was too taken by the serenity and aloneness of this natural wonder to care.

The next day Tom bought two strings of lights and wrapped them around the lower part of the tree. We needed more, but this would do for today. The lights shone through the needles while outside the fog of Whidbey Island rolled in, and I sat and meditated, letting my whole body relax into the silence.

It is now my fourth day with what has become the unspoken symbol of Christmas, solstice, new beginnings, change, hope. I can see growth and promise emerging from what has, over the past year, been a dreadful disconnection for most of us and a painful loss for many more. This singular meditation for these few days has opened me up and calmed me down.

And filled me with gratitude and love, which I share with you, my dear friends.

May each of you find your own special tree to carry you into the New Year.

THE LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL WAS NOT AN ONCOMING TRAIN!

After four years of chaos, conflict, and confusion, (and I would add contumely for all you lovers of Shakespeare…it’s a perfect fit), it’s wonderful to face what we all hope is a calmer future, despite the spectre of rising cases of Covid-19. We have a chance to repair a shattered government, work together to mend a divided populace, and once more take our place in the family of nations to promote desperately needed climate control and the peaceful solution of major conflicts. Yes, this is a tall order. But we’ve hit bottom, and now it’s time to come together and rebuild.

During these past months I’ve had the same ups and downs experienced by most of you—the lack of socializing, the shutdown of the Arts, the curtailing of many activities, the dependence on Zoom, the deep concern for those who are suffering, and the intermittent feeling of isolation and ennui. It’s during these times that our imagination can be our strongest ally. And it’s a challenge to keep it on the light side, exercising our sense of humor rather than giving in to scenarios of darkness and despair.

With that in mind I have been experimenting with verse and fantasy. I usually write a type of humorous Ogden Nashian verse, but have recently branched out into Rap…a result of enjoying a magnificent performance of the musical, Hamilton, on Disney Plus (well worth joining for a month!)…and blank verse, which is my attempt to turn stream of consciousness into poetry. I have to admit it’s fun, and I urge all of you to try it.

One of my favorite indoor locations for work and contemplation looks out at a deep forest of cedar and pine. Cedar is a tree with very expressive leaves and branches, feathery and light, easily captured by the slightest wind. To my eyes they can quickly morph into any number of animals or people: a nodding sea captain clutching a pipe in his teeth, a dolphin jumping out of the water, two whales facing off with open mouths, a yapping dog with wagging tale and floppy ears. It’s all there in your imagination, ready to be your friend and provide a story. Sounds a bit willy-nilly? So what! Welcome to life in 2020.

Now you’ve gone over the edge, Meg, you say. Ah, but what fun! Here is my latest buddy, who has been with me most of the summer, and is getting ready to hibernate for the winter. Squint your eyes and see what I see…a protective bear watching over me and telling me to get on with my life.

And here is what he means to me….

My protective bear stands between two fir trees,
One robust, the other rail thin
He leans to the right, gently brushing the bark’s deep ridges with one giant paw
While the left arm hangs lightly so as not to disturb the woody stem of the tender one.
Fifteen, twenty feet he looms, sometimes swaying, his cloak of leaves shimmering,
Opening up a small patch of bare chest

Eyes that never stop watching, sometimes laughing at my intensity
Sometimes disapproving and moving his head slightly to the left
Putting an end to further communication
But he is there for me, assuaging loneliness, encouraging tranquility,
Allowing me to believe

A sturdy truncated cedar bole some say, with tangled branches forming
Animal features. No nerves, no arteries, no voice, only the anatomical structure
Of a dying tree.
But they do not see what I see.
It is a fool who sees only what is directly in front of him
He is not fanciful, he does not squint his eyes, he does not imagine,
He does not let in the unknown

My bear is always changing, sometimes deep green with highlights, sometimes pale and forlorn,
Flattened by the wind,
Sometimes pushed back into the forest by unforeseen forces
In an attempt to loosen his grip. But that unshakeable glance gives me courage
He stands composed, peaceful, almost placid.
His message is clear…I am always here, whether you see me or not.
But I will check him in the morning, fearful that he has gone away, left me
For his winter home, discarded his fading green mantle, revealed his cedar trunk
To those who don’t believe in his existence

One night an imperceptible lowering of the eyes occurs as light fades.
They no longer seem bright and piercing.
I feel relaxed. Breathing is easier. No pressure from my vigilant
Companion. I will miss the twinkle, the secrets that connect us,
The promise of fresh ideas,
The endless possibility…
The narrow head remains immobile
I stand up to watch it recede into the darkness

Until I am ready to resume travel, I do my exploring in the woods around Upper Langley and the myriad trails on Whidbey Island. I’m outside, the air is fresh, and I hardly ever meet anyone, so a mask is not necessary. Since rain is too often my companion, I have found myself taking a closer look at the intricate underbrush, the ubiquitous mushrooms, the tangled vines, the ancient trees. And, of course, in this kind of unpredictable weather, there are always beautiful skies and inspiring sunsets. Maxwelton Beach is my favorite evening spot. Here are a few pictures of my wanderings.

Forest walks…

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Maxwelton Beach…

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Ebey’s Landing…

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Sky…

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One very positive side of these past nine months has been some of the excellent poetry readings and inspirational programs in Langley that are available on Zoom. They help me move out of the “poor me” rut into all the creative possibilities at hand. PBS, YouTube, Prime, and Netflix have probably never been so busy. There have also been numerous plays from TDF and other NYC venues and many operas available from the Met repertory. A play that I especially liked, On Becoming Shakespeare, starring the terrific English actor, Simon Callow, comes all the way from London and is free. What could be better?

I leave you some photos of the morning view from my upstairs window. I keep them handy to cheer me up when the rains come.

 

 

OUR LAST DAYS IN BOUDHANATH

(December 17-24, 2018)

Nitu

Our final week in Boudhanath was full of last-minute shopping for shawls, tapestries, prayer flags, table cloths, knickknacks like small metal dragons and carved turtles (please don’t ask me why) and outrageous bloomer-like pants that cost about $4.00, so who could resist? We said our farewells to our favorite shopkeepers. and the beloved stupa, now fully recovered from the damaging earthquake of 2015.

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The last items on our shopping agenda were two tablecloths…one a plain color and the other an overlay with our favorite Nepalese pattern. You find this combination in most restaurants and cafes, and I’ve always wanted to duplicate it on my dining room table. After much research, we discovered that the store carrying these cloths was outside the stupa gates and across a road under construction that seemed almost unpassable. Thus began our most perilous shopping expedition of the year!

Here is a glimpse of the chaos we encountered. Happily, we lived to tell the tale!

On the way home to the Shechen Guesthouse we passed more building repairs, many of which were being done by women. This is not unusual in Asia.

We also passed the reconstruction of the Shechen Monastery from earthquake damage. After three years, it was in the final stages of repair.

It was a bit dicey along a narrow path past this stretch…

I was completely ragged out by the time we hit the courtyard of the guesthouse and could sit down.

But I bounced right back the minute the cappuccino and mo-mos arrived!

The next day we had a chance to visit Pasang and his family at their one-room apartment, where he lives with his wife and two daughters amidst books, notebooks, and art projects created in school by the children. I have never seen such meticulous and artistic organization of a small living space. Everything was stacked up, even blankets and mattresses; two narrow benches were covered with tasteful rugs; and a tiny kitchen was in one corner with one table and a cupboard. Bookcases took up any extra wall space.

I’ve written about Pasang, the former guard at the Sechen Guest House, and his family many times before, and find it wonderful to observe their progress each year. Aashika, the eldest of the two daughters, is now in the fourth grade and has a daunting curriculum: grammar, science, history, writing, ecology…and all in English with commensurate homework! She and her sister, Ashmika, enjoyed reading to me and meticulously went through their school notebooks. They even entertained me with school songs. My favorite was one composed to a story by Raold Dahl. The little one, Ashmika, wanted to get into the act, so read and sang as well. And then it was my turn. I’ll never forget the delight on their faces. I felt as if I were on the off-Broadway stage, and my audience was enthralled. I read with drama and authority. Needless to say, I did not sing! The spirit that prevails in this family is heartening. Cramped conditions have not diminished their interactions. Loving, cooperative, supportive. There is joy written all over their faces.

Since our two-year absence we have been keeping in contact through What’s App. I honestly don’t know how they survive with the present conditions in Nepal. They, as well as our other friends in and around Kathmandu, are often in my thoughts.

Later in the day we stopped by the small Tibetan restaurant owned by our friend Tenzin’s mother and enjoyed more thenthuk and momos with the two of them. You may remember that we bumped into Tenzin, unexpectedly, before we took our trek. He recognized us as his sponsors when he was attending the TCV school in Bir, India. How about that for a coincidence?

On our last day we were invited to the children’s Christmas show we had enjoyed last year, put on by the Mila Academy, a private Tibetan pre-school. What a gala occasion, with carols, dancing, and an enthusiastic crowd of parents and friends! And all done in English. Pretty good for four to six-year-olds, I’d say. It really tickles me to hear familiar songs like Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer and Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow. Made me a bit homesick.

The teacher would stand in front of the students and go through gestures and dance steps along with them. She would hold the microphone for each one to tell his or her name or give a Christmas message. It was quite a production and was received enthusiastically by the onlookers.

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Dr. Sonam Pelmo

Early in the morning on our final day, we made one more visit to see Dr. Sonam Pelmo at the Shechen Clinic, home to Tibetan medicine. We had gone once before our trek, because I was having a lot of trouble with the pollution, which greatly affected my level of energy once I was out of the mountains. Their medicine helped me a great deal. I also took advantage of very low cost ($16) tooth cleaning from the resident dentist.

After lunch we said goodbye to our favorite staff members at the guest house.

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Afterwards we sat in the garden, enjoying the peace and quiet and warm sun. Soon we were joined by several new acquaintances—a couple from Taiwan, an American woman living in Dehradun, and a Buddhist monk. We talked about a future trip to Bodgaya and possibilities for places to explore next year. Soon the conversation morphed into a discussion of Buddhist teachings, which fascinated me. To me it is such a complicated philosophy, so full of drama, folklore, and tradition. If it brings good works in its wake, more power to these people, who are its practitioners. I enjoyed watching and listening to Cary during these exchanges and realized how much I have to learn. There is so much I do not know about her, but isn’t that true of most people? We, too, are complicated and multi-layered.

 

In late afternoon Tenzin joined us for a farewell meal. What a great way to end our visit!

At dusk it was off to the airport and our night flight to Seoul, S. Korea. Gird your loins, folks, for it’s really cold there! You can read about our trip to South Korea here.

As our plane rose into the night and circled Kathmandu, my thoughts turned to the varied experiences of the past three weeks. When would we return? Is the “hardship quotient,” the cold, the pollution, the danger in the mountains no longer an adventure to me? Would there be another trek in my future?

These are questions I would ponder over the next year, ‘though I doubted very much they would keep me from my beloved Nepal. But no matter what the future brings, the vison of the Boudha stupa in moonlight will remain with me always.

CRASH AND BURN IN THE TIME OF COVID….

You wonder, perhaps, if you will ever read the ending to Cary and my Khopra Ridge adventure in Nepal two years ago. I wonder, too. Life has been topsy-turvy for all of us since February, with appalling results, chaotic news coverage, mixed messages, and a country in shock. Books have been written and conventions have been held about the psychological damage to every segment of the population. We’ve heard it all. We need change and we know it. Drastic change.

Against this bizarre background we have all tried to see an upside to our collective suffering and hope that good will come out of it. With all of this in mind I headed for our Upper Langley community garden a month ago to pick some arugula for salad. Things were looking up, people were wearing masks and distancing, and maybe, just maybe, we would ramp up tests and start a program of contact tracing throughout the country. I picked up a knife in readiness to cut the arugula, and, suddenly, I stepped in a rabbit hole on the hill leading up from the garden shed. I shot backward with the ferocity I had shot forward last summer when I sustained a broken hand and compression fractures in the thoracic area of my back. This time I landed on the shed floor and broke my humerus where it connected to the shoulder. Don’t do it. Ever. It is the worst pain in the world, and there is nothing that can be done except let the arm hang, inert, in a sling, and heal. For an active person this is a huge slice of HELL. Add to this the necessity to sit in a cramped reclining chair to sleep…crunched up like a bag of sausages.

The hospital stay was a nightmare, especially since I was in a bed next to a woman with pneumonia…the kind where you cough all night, making sleep impossible. A well-meaning young doctor informed me right off the bat that I would be deformed, whereupon I asked if that meant that I could play The Elephant Man on Broadway. His sense of humor was right up there with his bedside manner.

My two children who live on Whidbey Island, Cary and Tom, fearing for my sanity, got me home after four days, and with patience and a great deal of love and encouragement, brought me to the present, where I can now sleep in a bed and where optimism is once more possible thanks to determination and physical therapy. Whidbey Health’s home services deserve endless kudos. So I am grateful and I plan to live another day. And I promise you, next summer there will no encore. Enough is enough…for sure!

Next time: Our final day in Kathmandu. Obviously, the trip in November has been canceled, and who knows how long our whole country will be on lockdown. But I have been through the worst. I am ready for anything!

In an impulsive moment I composed a simple poem describing my thoughts after my fall. A sense of humor is absolutely essential, combined with the realism that such events are no longer viable.

FALLING. AGAIN

The garden spreads in front of me. I reach for the knife, the pesky arugula in view;
The rabbit hole grabs my foot and I am flying,
Flying, flying backward, the clouds a blur, the shed all weathered as I pass by,
The floor receiving me like a giant rock to be repelled;
In one instant my life has changed, enveloped in pain
Indescribable

The ambulance screams

I talk to my body, this body that has no problems:
My heart beats, my lungs draw air, my legs go to high altitude, no pills line my shelves.
The stomach, the liver, the bowels, the kidneys…they are agreeable,
Then is it my feet that are the problem? Or their connection to the ragged sidewalks, the woodland holes, the forest’s rugged tentacles.
How to lift the brain fog that leads to these disasters,
Such adventures. You say, find another way to be different.
Eschew the hematomas, they are out of style, the broken ribs, the compression fractures,
The arms cracked at the shoulder. They get you nowhere. They cause one thing, family distress at the gloomy prospect of old age.
It is a costly way to learn compassion, patience, and gratitude for lesser injuries than those that could lead to oblivion
Or the desire for oblivion.

Do not crunch over, do not shuffle, do not be dispirited or depressed or angry at a careless self.
Start again, do the heavy lifting of repair, believing a fuller, more aware life is waiting to be plucked. To be enjoyed.
To be shared.

PULLAHARI MONASTERY REVISITED

December 16, 2018

One of the joys of travel is revisiting places that have special meaning, and the Pullahari Monastery, on one of the hills above Boudha, is one of those. It had been six years since we walked from Boudha through the valley and up a steep hill to this beautiful monastery overlooking the vast expanse of the Kathmandu. The road had been unpaved, small family farms abounded, and there was an intimate feeling of community with a sprinkling of neighborhood stores and large areas of open space. How different it was today! Traffic jammed the streets, and houses and apartments had replaced many of the farms.

Halfway there I hailed a cab to take us the rest of the way. It was a good thing we hadn’t tried to climb on our own as before, because the path–a short cut up the hill through the forest–had been fenced off. As I looked at the slope we’d scrambled up, I wondered how I had ever navigated it in the first place!

We arrived at the monastery tea shop, run by a charming gentleman who served us tea and brownies, my first chocolate since arriving in Nepal.

From there we began a peaceful walk down many stone steps to several stupas, all situated in the woods and surrounded by lovely flowering bushes. Prayer flags added to the serenity.

Click on photos for full-size slide show.

 

After walking a few koras, we visited the main temple. Cary was familiar with the surroundings having done a month-long retreat in 2007.

We walked around the beautiful temple with its splendid columns, exquisitely ornamented entrances, painted ceilings, and symbolic art work. I had seldom seen such intricate detail and was enthralled by the diverse designs and colors.

We then walked farther up to a smaller temple with the stupa containing sacred body relics of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche. He established the monastery and was tragically killed in an automobile accident just after its completion in 1992. A new building exclusively for butter lamps was being erected.

There were large flowering bushes covering the area—poinsettias, a variety of roses, and camelias, as well as rows of smaller plants with a sign: No Plucking of Flowers.

 

Cary showed me the dorms, looking out over the valley, where she had stayed in 2007, and shared her feelings and experiences while doing retreat. This meant a great deal to me.

It was mid-afternoon when we completed what to me was a spiritual journey through this very special complex, and headed back to the teahouse to summon a taxi. Fortunately, we found a delightful Tibetan cab driver, who came from a distance, and delivered us to Boudha Gate in record time. We had thought we’d be in traffic for hours, but he knew all the short cuts and back roads. He was also a Buddhist, so the conversation was lively. What a great way to end the afternoon!

This was the last day of our visiting the area surrounding Kathmandu. We spent the next week moseying around Boudha, saying goodbye to old friends, and enjoying the peace and tranquility of the Shechen Guest House. Stay with us while we complete our 2018 sojourn in Nepal.

The Tibetan Wheel of Life – the representation of the cyclic existence of samsara.

A VISIT TO PASHUPATINATH AND ARYA GHAT

(Take two – here is our full visit to Pashupatinath!)

December 15, 2018

How great it was to get back to the Shechen guest house in Boudhanath and be greeted by old friends and, as always, to meet a few new ones. Joss, a physical therapist from California had recently come from Bhutan, where she used an $18,000 Russian machine to work on patients. She had given me two sessions before the trek that really helped with the pain in my ribs. Little did we know at the time that I actually had broken those ribs on my recent fall in Kathmandu. No wonder I was in such pain!

And it was fun to reconnect with Maria, the Buddhist nun from Iowa, who now lives in Dharamsala, India, and is one of the peppiest, most upbeat people on the planet. Then we met Hans, a retired “thatcher” and longtime bee-keeper from Denmark. Seldom have I met a more fascinating, charming, sensitive, and caring man. We could have talked for hours. And so it goes with the traveling members of the Shechen “family.”

Today was the first day that neither Cary nor I had been awakened by the early morning chanting, bell ringing, and drumming at the monastery, which routinely took place at 5:30 AM. It was my first long sleep since returning from Pokhara. After breakfast with Maria, we decided to head for the famous Hindu temple complex, Pashupatinath, which includes the ghats on the Bagmati River, where bodies burn all day long. Arya Ghat is the main place where the crematorium lies and is the largest cremation area in Nepal. It consists of six elevated platforms on the banks of the river just outside the main temple.

(Click on photos to enlarge)

We crossed the Bagmati River on the north side of the Pashupatinath Temple Complex. As we entered the complex we could see that many temples and beautifully-carved buildings had been destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, and extensive rebuilding was in progress. I noticed the usual large metal (bronze) pigs, Ganesh – the elephant god, Hanuman – the monkey god, and hundreds of live monkeys cavorting ups and down the massive stone steps and on the adjacent lawns.

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But it was the ghats that really spoke to me.

About ten were being used, and more that I couldn’t see. Huge fires billowed forth, their orange plumes intense and shattering, accompanied, off and on, by thick smoke. Hay was placed on top of white packets of ghee (clarified butter) or some other readily available combustible material to keep the fire burning. Men in T-shorts used huge poles to poke the fire, and kept wood on top of the burning body. As the body disintegrated, they would brush the ashes and small bones into the river and wash the large stones in preparation for another body. The river was quite low and extremely filthy, with white muck and debris floating in it.

I watched as one palette became clear and another body was carried to the site by relatives and held high over their heads. The body had been wrapped in bright orange cloth and taken into a large pillared section of the temple. Droves of people pushed in. I assumed it was some kind of farewell ceremony. It continued for a long time while the pyre was being built. Then the body was placed on top and a few people walked around and around, similar to what I saw in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges in 1987. At that time, however, it was the eldest son who performed this duty. And I was standing very close to the bank of the river, so could witness the bargaining between the family and the seller of the wood. I was told that this was often a problem with poor families. They needed to buy enough to completely burn the body.

After placing more ghee on the body, a long stick was lit to start the fire. I waited until the flames rose before leaving.

This experience was very meaningful to me, especially after my conversations with Maria, who had worked for years as a counselor for the dying. It was real and it was comforting, and it gave me a lot to think about: karma, reincarnation, and the fact that only the five senses are gone and a new body awaits us. I would think long and hard about these questions as we made our way back to Boudha. How can we influence our next life, and do we have one? How do we know, or how do we not know?

A VISIT TO PASHUPATINATH TEMPLE AND ARYA GHAT

December 15, 2018

OOPS! Another slip of the finger and the post we’re working on accidentally published! Stay tuned for the last days in Kathmandu in 2018!

How great it was to get back to the Shechen guest house in Boudhanath and be greeted by old friends and, as always, to meet a few new ones. Joss, a physical therapist from California had recently come from Bhutan, where she used an $18,000 Russian machine to work on patients. She had given me two sessions before the trek that really helped with the pain in my ribs. Little did we know at the time that I actually had broken those ribs on my recent fall in Kathmandu. No wonder I was in such pain! And it was fun to reconnect with Maria, the Buddhist nun from Iowa, who now lives in Dharamsala, India, and is one of the peppiest, most upbeat people on the planet. Then we met Hans, a retired “thatcher” and longtime bee-keeper from Denmark. Seldom have I met a more fascinating, charming, sensitive, and caring man. We could have talked for hours. And so it goes with the traveling members of the Shechen “family.”

Much more to come!

 

CHANGE IS ON THE HORIZON…

For the last several blogs I have been writing about my trip to Nepal back in 2018 and the trek to Khopra Ridge in the Himalayas, ending with my final days in Boudha, a part of Kathmandu. Little did I know how fortuitous those words would be. Who could have written a fantasy novel with a plot describing our present scenario and think anyone would take it seriously? And who could imagine that there would come a day when I’d long for the crowded streets of Boudha, the insane motorcyclists, the noisy bustle encircling the Boudhanath Stupa, the close brushes with eternity around every corner, and the universal, spontaneous closeness with my fellow human beings? All things we take for granted, good and bad. And now drastically changed.

What will I do without hugs, without comforting pats on the back, without theater, without opera, without ensemble music, without a gathering of close friends around a table for a meal, a cup of coffee, a glass of wine? Get used to it, Meg. Treasure those fond memories, but keep yourself open for new, different ones….

Yes, ingenuity seems to be the go-to word today. Imaginations are working overtime in every phase of life, and, in many instances, humor is on the rise. What else can we do? And in the end, I am optimistic that needed changes in our world, top to bottom, are on the horizon.

I wrote these words before the events of the past week and the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis policeman. I see this as a seminal event that I hope has awakened all of America, and especially its representatives in Washington, to the need for drastic changes in its treatment of people of color, in its unfair economic establishment, in its inadequate system of medical care, and in its increasing dependence on force to solve its problems. America is for all people. It needs to unite, eschew its recent tribal and political divisions and treat each other with kindness and respect, love and understanding. This takes more than hope. This requires action. This is essential if we are to survive as a viable nation.

Stay healthy.

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© 2021 Meg Noble Peterson