Two Hands Full of Dust

I am at the Garden of a Thousand Buddhas, just north of Missoula, Montana, where I have come to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday. My mom, my sister, and I have taken a day trip to see this sacred place, carved out in the middle of nowhere. When I first heard of this Buddha garden, I envisioned lush green grounds, with a thousand different Buddha statues spread throughout a labyrinthine Eden.

Like much of the rest of my life, the place I now find myself in no way resembles my preconceived notions of where I thought I would be. This “garden” is flat and arid, stark and dry, surrounded by mountains, with very little greenery. It is much more open and unobstructed than I had envisioned, somehow simultaneously desolate and beautiful.

The Garden of One Thousand Buddhas is designed in the shape of an 8-spoked Dharma Wheel, and the one thousand Buddha statues are placed along the spokes of this wheel. According to the written summary we received at the gate, “each of these handmade concrete statues contains prayers, mandalas and blessed substances.”

After the unexpected delightful circumstance of meeting the current Buddhist abbott at the entrance, my mother, sister and I decide to go our separate ways, exploring in our own manner, at our own pace.

I take some time to sit on a bench and just take in the scenery, do a little writing, breathe out some of the tension I’ve brought along on my trip west. This fall has seen me take on a new endeavor–teaching Spanish to middle-schoolers–an unexpected bend in the road that is my life’s journey. I’m sure there are lessons I’m learning, am supposed to learn, at this stage of the game. But do they have to be so difficult, so taxing, so painful? I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but whine for the last two months. Even I am tired of hearing my constant litany of complaints.

And I think about family. Families can be so complicated sometimes, I think.  Or maybe we make them more complicated than they need to be. Maybe families are just everybody doing the best that they can on any given day, and sometimes getting it right, and sometimes missing the mark. Sometimes it’s about learning to find your voice and saying “no’. Sometimes it’s about learning to say “yes”. Sometimes it’s about “I’m sorry”, and hopefully it can be about “I love you.”

And if you weren’t born into that kind of a family, sometimes it’s about saying “I’m sorry you can’t see my beauty, and I deserve to find people who do”, then finding a place where people love and value and respect who you are, and claim you as their own. That can be family too.

After breathing out my teaching stress, and my family stress, and my rushing from the classroom to the airport and making it through the security line stress, I finally relax into my bench, and become aware that there is a prayer wheel some twenty yards to my right, making a rhythmic ringing noise as it spins. It is a large brownish metal cylinder, which rotates continually, covered by a triangular “hat” and a larger protective canopy. The prayer wheel has symbols carved into its surface, symbols whose meaning I don’t know, but can only guess. And I am finally restored enough to explore.

I meander back and forth through rows of seemingly identical white Buddha figurines, and discover that some of them are marked at the base with small nameplates. These list an individual’s Tibetan name, followed by an English name, such as “Protected by Dragons”, “Pinnacle of Wisdom”, or “Best Intellect”, and seem to describe the breakthrough moment when these individuals (are they perhaps the equivalent of Catholic saints?) “first generated the mind of enlightenment”. Now I am intrigued. What great deeds or prayers, I wonder, might take one from the realm of the daily, the ordinary, to the “mind of enlightenment”?

I read the inscriptions on the plaques, several of which mention people doing grand deeds, but more often than not, point to very kind and simple deeds and offerings. One, I read was “a hunter who offered to point out the way on the road.” Another, “the daughter of a prostitute, when offering a mirror”. A third was inscribed as “a seller of dried cow dung fuel who offered it so that the Tathagata known as Praised by the Wise could wash his begging bowl.”

The one that finally stops me short, strikes me to the core, and brings me to tears,  reads: “he was a young boy who offered a double handful of dust.”

For weeks I have felt desperate because my knowledge and meager attempts at teaching have seemed so woefully inadequate.  I am constantly overwrought, insecure. Never mind that everyone tells me that this is normal for first-year teachers. It doesn’t feel normal to me. Those murky demons named “never good enough” and “not ok to make mistakes” have reared their ugly heads and are battling mightily for possession of my soul. Many days they win.

And yet, I read, one boy first generated the mind of enlightenment by humbly offering a “double handful of dust”. Even I, woefully inadequate as I often feel, can offer that much, I am most certain. And some days, that’s the very best I have to offer.

Could it be that I am not called to do an exceptional job, to be successful, even to feel like I know what I’m doing? Every day I go to school, I am in relationship with friends and family, I cross paths with strangers. Can it possibly be enough to simply offer what I have available–a compassionate heart and two willing hands, full of joy, or hope, or some days, simply dust? Somehow, I think it can.

The prayer flags posted around the perimeter of the garden are tattered, weathered spirits holding sacred intentions. As are we. And in the distance, the prayer wheel is still ringing, and the prayers continue to rise.


Rest Stop

I’m halfway across Michigan, a third of the way to my second destination on what will prove to be a 3,600-mile road trip. I spent a good, long weekend with my son, watching the sun set over Lake Michigan, hiking, napping, playing mini-golf, and in between helping him get ready for summer study in Liverpool. I haven’t felt this relaxed in a long time—the sad part is, I’m still uptight!

My stomach is tied in so many knots, the sea scouts would be proud! Square knots, slipknots and half hitches—they’re all in there. I left later than intended this morning, and am headed to my sister’s home just north of Pittsburgh. I am making good time, when a rest stop sign comes into view.

I (i.e. my bladder) do NOT need to stop at the moment; my soul, however, whose voice is getting harder to ignore, tells me in no uncertain terms that it is definitely time to “GET OFF THE ROAD. NOW!” Ok, ok, I get the message. Against my “better” judgment (the part of me that wants to make up for lost time) I grumpily make the exit.

I park the car and ask myself: “Ok, so NOW what?” I notice there’s an empty picnic table sitting in the shade. I get the sense that I need to write, to do some soul searching, or rather, some soul emptying. I take myself to the picnic bench, plop down with my journal, and take a look inside my knotted stomach.

And horror of horrors, it’s like a DUMPSTER in there! All this old, broken-down leftover junk, floating in a pool of toxic soup. Somebody forgot to take it to the dump!

Maybe I don’t have to “work through” all of it? Can I perhaps just get rid of it? Dump it off a cliff somewhere, bury it in a landfill, or maybe plug my nose and call in roto-rooter to suck out the sludge? I know the only way through is through, but is there a difference between taking a shortcut and just wallowing in the bad stuff?

AbruptIy, I get an image of an old man shining a lantern into the dumpster, shedding light on its contents. And I suddenly realize there might be some treasures hidden among all this old clutter and toxicity. If I simply give it the old heave-ho, I might throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, and what’s the use of a clean bathtub if I’ve thrown out its most precious contents?

There just seems to be so much nasty stuff in here as well—it looks like a daunting, if not insurmountable, task. Yet, I know at some level, at the level that’s a little older, wiser, and a few steps further along the journey than the rest of me, that, like eating an elephant (one bite at a time) or taking a journey of 10,000 miles, (starting with just one step) this task, too, must be undertaken slowly, painstakingly, piece by piece by piece.

All my life I’ve been straining toward whatever’s next, whatever is just beyond my reach. Surely I’ll learn life’s lessons, become mature, get my act together and THEN, magically, everything will flow and make sense, and I’ll be able to be truly happy.   But today I’ve learned something important. Life isn’t like school—we don’t graduate and THEN practice our profession. In life, every day’s a school day. There are lessons to be learned right to the very end. This I have learned this year from the passing of our fathers.

It’s taken me fifty-some years, but how liberating to finally understand that my goal in life is not to become a perfect person, but rather to figure out how to be fully human, wholly and unabashedly ME, warts and all, whoever she may be.

And I suspect, that if and when I finally do get to the bottom of my dumpster, separate the junk from the treasure, the wheat from the chaff, liberate the gold from the dross, then, and only then, will I receive my diploma and a roadmap for the next leg of the journey, the transition from life on earth into eternity.

My soul is done emptying for today. I climb in my car, pull back onto the highway, and head for Pittsburgh. I’ll be a little late, but it will be ok.




Heading Home

It’s a chilly, gray, rainy Sunday afternoon, and I am holed up in the Comfort Inn near the Paris airport, winding down finally after my whirlwind tour. (Mexico/Italy/France). I’m in pretty good shape, all things considered. I’m proud of myself. This did not turn out to be such an easy trip, and I figured it out and made it through. Way to go me.

My travel blog is not how I first envisioned it—neither a daily travel diary nor journal at all, in the end. More a collection of themed writings as it turns out. But I am very aware of how fortunate I am to have the time, good health, and resources, to make such a journey, and have wanted to use my writing as a way to share my good fortune, to “spread the wealth” as it were.

Today’s leg of the journey brought me by train from Strasbourg to Paris, and tomorrow I take my airport shuttle, do the airport security dance, and head for home. Although the action part of the adventure will be over, I suspect the reflection part of this journey will continue for quite some time. I’ve taken in a variety of sights, sounds, smells and experiences; the cloistered aspect of a Minnesota winter is the perfect setting to sit and make sense of what I’ve seen, so I anticipate the writing will continue long after this part of my life’s journey comes to a close.

On one level, this trip was about visiting my children during their semester abroad, spending some quality time with them individually, and creating shared experiences. This I did. Although quality time with one of them involved extracting ourselves from an environment that felt more cult-like than sacred, and with the other, a one-hour jaunt around the perimeter of the world’s smallest country! Neither of these experiences would have qualified as “Plan A”. But we survived them together, and these shared experiences, both good and bad, do continue to weave our lives together, strand by strand.

On another level, this trip was about figuring out who I am and what I’m made of, now that I’m no longer in my twenties, thirties, or even forties. Now that I’m no longer primarily a mom. Now that I’ve left the interpreting position I’ve held for the last ten years. Part of this trip was about figuring out what’s left, now that my youth has begun to fade and my primary roles have shifted. About figuring out what’s ahead. I haven’t been thinking about these things consciously on a daily basis, but they’ve been under my feet, behind my back, propelling me forward, In Cancun, in Rome, in Assisi, at Mont Saint Michel, in Strasbourg.

It came to me today, in an inauspicious moment, on the train to Paris, traveling through the French countryside.  A late train reservation meant I had no assigned seat, so I was huddled with a couple of other travelers at the end of the car, in a tiny space filled with luggage.  Yet I had a view as the country scenery swirled by, and I thought about how much I enjoy sitting and watching the world.  I’ve learned to appreciate that sitting and doing nothing allows my brain to percolate and float new ideas to the surface.   One such thought slowly bubbled its way to my attention.  I finally know what I want to be when I grow up—I think I’ll be a writer!  And if I’m not grown up now, as a grandmother of two, I don’t know when I’ll ever be.

And who then, am I, after all is said and done?  After 10,000+ miles, three countries and as many languages, airplanes, buses, trains, metros, trams, cobblestones, cathedrals, Irish pubs and sacred places?  Well it turns out I’m the same old me I always was, with just a little more mileage, a little more strength, a little more wisdom, and many more stories to tell.

Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Traveling Light

Traveling light, both physically and metaphorically is something I’ve had due time to consider over the last ten days. I’ve discovered that what looks like a light load when assembled in piles on one’s bed appears a lot heavier when measured against miles of airport concourses, train terminals, city cobblestones and metro stairwells.  The two suitcases I purchased for this trip have been worth the investment for the wheels alone; they turn on a dime and are easy to manipulate.  The expandable feature, however, has been a mixed blessing; it’s allowed me to squeeze extra items in, but makes the suitcases fall forward unexpectedly at inconvenient moments. So far I have been successful at maintaining YouTube anonymity throughout my journey.  One may wish to be known worldwide, but I prefer that my ten minutes of illusory fame (if and when they arrive) might not involve a humorous video starring me, my luggage, and an escalator.

As I was preparing my piles before actually packing my suitcases, I spoke with a kindred spirit, a dear friend of mine who often packs more, rather than less.  She would have made the ideal contestant on “Let’s Make a Deal” the game show where, among other things, women were routinely rewarded for bringing a variety of unusual items to the studio in their purses.  An umbrella, a hatchet, a roll of duct tape?  No problem.  Shoelaces, a tube of super glue, your kids’ immunizations records?  Right here.  Nose hair  clippers, corkscrew, map of Rhode Island?  Never leave home without them.  My friend is one of those people who’s ready for anything.  Whether at work or away on vacation, if you need something, she’s got it.  We talked about the pros and cons of packing this way and she recalled: “one of the first major trips I packed for was a journey to West Africa, where nothing would be available, and I seem to have been packing that way ever since, regardless of where I’m going.”  I never travelled to West Africa, but I was raised on the Girl Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”  But does that motto translate to packing every item you might possibly need, or does it mean being ready improvise or search out whatever you might need if the occasion arises?  Part of the habit of over-preparedness stems, at least for me, from the notion that if I need something I’ve forgotten to pack, I’m going to have to ask for it in Italian or French, which feels like a daunting task.

Before packing each item, I weighed the pro of having it if I really needed it vs. the con of hauling it around without ever needing to use it.   So I opted to include the first aid kit (which I blessedly haven’t needed) but left home without a sewing kit (which I could have used).  Turns out, in Italy, there are pharmacies readily available, but I have no idea what kind of store sells needle and thread.  I did buy good walking shoes, (thankfully) and brought along moleskin for blisters.  But the foot pain I’ve had has little to do with feet rubbing on shoes, and everything to do with centuries-old, deformed cobblestones jutting up every which way, and grinding daily into the soles of my feet, good shoes and socks notwithstanding.  I brought a water-proof layer (thankfully) but left the umbrella at home—good call, as in Italy, umbrella salesmen pop up at the first hint of rain, and accost anyone not already carrying an umbrella.  I packed a pillow and light blanket as well (pillow helpful, blanket superfluous) for the transatlantic flight.

I started off so proud of my light packing efforts.  One medium suitcase, one carry-on piece, and a large handbag; not too bad for a three-week trip abroad, I thought, especially considering that one third of my large bag was full of gifts and goodies for my college student children.  Unimaginably, I had limited myself to two pairs of shoes, but the change of season provided a bit of a packing challenge, for which I carried several layers of outerwear.   Not knowing how available laundry facilities might be also compelled me to bring more clothing than might have been necessary otherwise.  Although my stay in Rome was at a lovely efficiency that came equipped with a washing machine (right where the oven should have been—I’ll write later about attempting to cook Thanksgiving dinner), my one try at washing my clothes in Rome netted a lovely set of soggy and well-rinsed garments that the soap never touched.  In the cool Rome weather, this clothing took over two days to dry in the bathroom, so that even after receiving clarification from the landlord as to which receptacle of the washing machine the soap belonged in (section II rather than section I) I didn’t dare wash again for fear that I’d be transporting a suitcase full of clothes that, while clean, were still quite damp.  So I awoke today to find that the only item of clean clothing I had left to wear was my Choo Choo Bob’s t-shirt.  Some part of me thought I might clean up my act and be fashionable in Europe.  The universe, apparently, is having the last laugh.

Yesterday’s travel challenge: the Rome to Rennes leg of my journey: a 13-hour sojourn that involved a six-block walk, a local train, a two-hour flight, a shuttle bus, the Paris metro, a three-hour wait in the Paris train station, a two-hour train ride, another metro and a local bus.  Home for the week is a sweet flat in Rennes on–you guessed it–the fourth floor.

I am reminded of images of the remains of travelers on the Oregon trail.  The further west they travelled, the more of their belongings were left strewn on the prairie; what once appeared to be an item of estimable value eventually became a burden and was jettisoned to improve one’s chances of survival.  Not a useful comparison, perhaps, for my brief European tour, but one that gives me pause, nonetheless.  I have several unplanned days next week at the end of my journey, and I find myself weighing the pros and cons of my options based, to at least some degree, on the hassle of hauling all my stuff around with me.

So my physical baggage (the French is plural “bagages”) is getting in the way of my free spirit.  Hmmm.  Some more food for thought.  And what about the other kind of baggage?  Those attitudes and expectations that keep us from traveling light?  That, my friends, will have to be the topic of another post–all the baggage hauling from yesterday has prepared me for that famous international afternoon activity–the nap.



Wing Dust

The sun is streaming in my window, warming my face on a chilly November morning.  It is Tuesday, and I leave for Europe on Thursday.  Two of our college children are taking their semester abroad, and against all practical advice, I’m tapping heavily into my retirement account to finance this adventure.  I know it’s an incredible splurge, and I’m aware of how tremendously blessed I am to have this opportunity, yet on some level it feels like a deep need rather than a luxury.   I’m trying not to panic, since panic never helps much anyway, and ends up being a colossal waste of both adrenalin and brain space.  Instead, I’m just trying to plug away at things, focusing on one task at a time, and trust that everything will come together in the end.

I want to tell myself that this is “just a trip to Europe”, (as if “just” could ever modify that phrase) so that my body will settle down and stop feeling so jittery, but my body knows better, and tells me so. This is a spiritual pilgrimage, the middle-aged me searching to take up where the adolescent me left off.  On some levels, it feels as if I’m twenty-something again.  On other levels–catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, for instance, or acknowledging my need for support stockings for the transatlantic flight, I come to grips with another “reality”–in human years, I am now fifty-something.  Yet my spirit, if not my body, feels young and light again, full of possibility and longing, trusting and open, excited to be alive.  It’s looking forward to discover whatever adventure might lie just around the corner.  I feel blessed that my spirit feels safe enough to come out again, that the vicissitudes (or “dings” as we might now call them) of my earlier adult life have not been able to keep this girl down forever.  I gingerly dust off my roadweary wings, and tentatively prepare to soar.

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