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Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Long Journey Home

The skies opened with a torrent of rain and I was free. Cleansed in the patter rigorous patter of rain drops and clothed in swimmers and a brim hat, I stood on the shores of the Coral Sea and watched the tourists scurry to the respite of fan palms. There, under the full pummel of the brief shower,  I felt all the worries and travails of the past five years slip away.   I'd had the most awesome day already-- buffed by the swells of the ocean while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef and just steps away from the oldest rainforest on earth.

However, thoughts passed over the young woman I'd met first thing in the morning as we were waiting for the pickup for our snorkel trip.  When she was given an extra thick wetsuit and I noticed her changing that the pronounced, fragile, malnutrition was revealed. The girl, traveling by herself, with ankles the size of my wrist spend the latter part of our snorkel trip hunkered, shivering,  into the skipper's warm jacket as the boat ebbed and swayed on the Outer Reef. I offered her some of my calories and she declined. She seemed frail, yet determined. But something was a little off.

Her physical condition mirrored my own travails with my teeth that I'd suffered in the latter days of my time at the Red Centre.  For then, ominously I noticed a swollen and painful lump next to my new implant.  I flashed back to the days when I was freewheeling in the US, the months after I'd left an intense experienced working as a street outreach counselor to youth , in downtown Boston. Thanks to  diabetes, questionable childhood dental braces, overeager Tufts dental students and negligent periodontal follow-up, I'd had that same symptom in 1991 and then lost my four front teeth.

I was not manifesting the cavelier patterns of my youth any longer. Early Monday morning, I called the dentist, mapped my route and went in. He did some intense cleaning, confirmed that the x-rays showed no bone loss and then I was on my way with antibiotics and a warning not to drink alcohol. I staggered out of the office, bleeding and vulnerable, but also confident I was doing the right thing.  But for this young woman, looking as emaciated as many of the Cambodian patients I left behind in Phnom Penh, there was no easy cure. She needed nourishment.

The next morning, she said hello again and complained that the night walk had gone on quite late and she was tired.  I asked her for a moment, and then asked if she was well. "Before you say anything else, let me ask you one thing first," she was strident and righteous."Do you think I'm anorexic?"   I knew then I was in trouble.

"It occurred to me, but really...." Before I could finish, she went on a tirade of stomach cancer and years of health problems, yelling as she walked away from me and retreating to her room.  "I was speaking from compassion!," I said as her door closed.

I did not see her again, but I think of her managing all that pain alone. Over the past five years, I've learned the tools of self-reliance and resilience.  I've polished my packing systems, sharpened my receptivity and defenses and at times wallowed deeply before rolling into the next wave.

There are some knowns about the future: my family and lifelong east coast friends await. There will always be a place for me. I'm confident about the job market for my skills. I'll need to spend some money to get things moving, but there is plenty of richness ahead.  I am strong and capable, bruised and gray but still relatively attractive and ready for a new adventure.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

First-class Wilderness Architecture

This is a snapshot essay of the developments along the brand -new 3 Capes Track in Tasmania. Built over a period of 7 years, the track was a huge investment with legions of workers, over 15,000 helicopter cargo flights and 28 million Australian dollars.

I share the development instead if the nature because I was so inspired by the 
combination of function and design along the way.

This is the first interpretative bench. Hikers are provided with a booklet tbat provides safety information and trail details. Each bench/seating area highlights a specific natural and social feature along the way.  This bench looked out over Port Arthur, a prison community from the 1800's. 
First night's cabin powered by solar array and missing a small section of roof. The ranger joked about it, so perhaps the missing sheet is on the way. Or not. I'm not sure.  
Each common area had a library of interpretative materials. 


 Each night, we had a short orientation session with the ranger shortly after we arrived. These guys work for a couple weeks at a time. Our group was varied: 3 single people (me and a girl from Kuala Lumpur who shared a room each night, and an older single guy), Pensioners from Tasmania and other states in Australia with their 30-year old backpacks, newlyweds, couples and friends and families. 
A lot of the track is wood, here covered with chicken wire. Farther down the path seen in the upper part of the photo is Ellarwey Valley, named by a couple of 1970's Bushbashers who shortened it from "Where the hell are we."  
Alas, one of the members of our group knew one those explorers
 who died of Alzheimers Disease recently.  

With the helipad to the top right, you can see that these outhouses feature the flying poo, which is winched out to the edge of the platform for transport by helicopter.  

The shower at the Munro cabin, night 2.  You can add a little hot water to the 
bucket. Hoist it up and you are ready to go.  I declined. Too cold. 
Cooking gear and stoves are supplied. Look at all that gleaming steel.  
The hand pump is a great feature. 
Deck chairs, yoga mats and foam rollers for post hike relaxation. BYOB. 

Love these simple design details that transform function into art. 


Memory foam mattresses covered with a soft rubber covering. Oh hale- Alaska State Parks! 

Another particularly artistic interpretative stop that was called "Blood on the Velvet Lounge"
 featuring insights on  vicious insect predators.
These signs appear on the track every so often.  Goofy newlyweds helped illustrate the dangers. 
Wow.  The track follows the coast for most of the time. 

Believe it or not, most of the stones used in the trail
were flown in by helicopter.  There was so much craft involved in
this effort.  I found it illuminated and inspiring. 
The end the trail at Port Forescue. 


Selfie at the end of the trail down the blade.  One of the first 3,000 people down the trail!  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Start Again

Start Again, S.N. Goenka encouraged us.  I was sitting in a darkened room with 28 other people in a forest retreat center north of Hobart Tasmania. My eyes closed in concentration, breathing deeply, my brain highly engaged in scanning my body for any sensations. I was frustrated and distracted by the shooting pains that radiated from my inner thigh to the to the tips of my toes, which escalated in earnest on Day 4. It was  Vipassna Day, when we moved from concentrating on the area below our noses to the whole body. We were encouraged to sit motionless for two hours, under constant instruction for this pivotal moment in the practice.  This was the beginning of the practice of "Sittings of Strong Determination."
The Wheel of Life, part of the Universal
Law of Dhamma. An image often
associated with the
Vipassana practice. 

On the 5th day, I talked with the teacher about the pains and some of the thoughts that now passed through my mind.   "The sensations are your Sankara Ellen." She reassured me. "Like everything, it will pass."  Miraculously, on the second of 4 meditation sessions each day, it disappeared. It was always an unknown when it would come and go.

On the 8th day, I felt myself breathing through my pelvis and the sensation of my heart beating through my eardrums. I had those glimpses of the miraculous dissolving body, my entire torso vibrating in minuscule rhythms.    I was aligned with a universe that Buddhists have known for centuries. For for Westerners the rigor of a pre-dawn wake-up to the gong, not speaking for 10 days and absolving from food after 5pm is suggested to access the benefits of Vipassana meditation.  I left the retreat center pounds lighter: not worried about the future, lean and disciplined, physically and mentally cleansed.

Not to say that my thoughts stopped. They were not the usual circling tidbits of worry or conjecture that often populate my brain. Instead I was visited by people that I hadn't remembered for a while. Those who died, people I used to know well and now can't find (I tried again through Facebook when I came out) and the characters I have met all along the way.  "This meditation is a really good life skill." I thought to myself, "Something that could be used in prisons very effectively."
The course schedule was rigorous, but grounding. I found it
much easier to make it to the meditation hall at 0530, in the hour
before I would meditate in  my warm sleeping bag
 with my eyes closed
Food was excellent. 


In Tasmania, the country was populated by convict women.  In a ost-course field trip to the Cascades Female Factory, I learned that the convicts, often young women sentenced for petty crimes, were forced to remain silent during their terms.  Higher performing prisoners were parceled out to British leaders' homes as cooks and cleaners.  If, as a result of performing other duties, they became pregnant, they were deemed sinners and forced to return to the prison to give birth. The babies were raised in silence. The 10% who survived their first 5 years of life were completely mute, condemned to a life of asylums.  They never got to really start again.  If the mothers survived their imprisonment, they were often married out to seamen and began populating the country.  Now in Tasmania, 70% of all residents are related to the convicts.

There were times that the Vipassana meditation course felt like a silent prison. I was determined to serve my sentence, finish the course. Partly because I had no where else to go, but also because I wanted to finish and accomplish something tangible.  I was a little sad to break my silence on the 10th day.  I waited until the laughter of my fellow mediators faded and went to the forest.  There, a small group stood in the sunshine and compared notes.  I learned that the creatures I saw hopping around the Center were wallabies, not baby kangaroos.  I found that the the words coming from my mouth felt trite, meaningless. The mental process I had experienced was so deeply personal and individual-- yet also universal-- it was hard to know how to move into the new world.
S.N. Goenka, the teacher who moved the Vipassna meditation
technique from a temple in Burma to international practice.
The course is taught with videos and recordings of his teachings.
A special guy. 

I am now truly starting again. This isn't unfamiliar-- my transitions have typically lept from a stable environment into unknowns.  I think of myself as a bird-like pollinator, moving from place to place.

After I returned from the course, I prepared for my hiking trip along the coast of the Tasman Sea. On the hike, the views stretched out far beyond. The horizon faded to sky. There is an uncharted ocean of new experiences and relationships ahead.  The tool of meditation will be a great salve to cope with the uncertainties of my future: new job, new friends, hopefully new ways of coping with stress and the precarious financial future.

I know, after some experience, that things will always work out.  I am now reassured that there will always be people with whom I share the commitment to sit, with eyes closed, ardently and passionately pursuing the awareness of breath and body. Or a knitting group to join, or writers's workshops and classes.   One always has to be committed to starting again.