A Moment of Magic

Once in a great while, life offers up moments of unforgettable magic. Facebook gave me this image today and in doing so gave me back a moment of magic from 2010.

The photo looks down from the slopes of Gangri Thökar, on a path leading up to Shugseb Ani Gompa in central Tibet. I was on a pilgrimage with Dechen Yeshe Wangmo and we’d arrived later than we planned at the base of the mountain. A number of our group opted to engage in brief prayers and then head back into Lhasa for a hot supper and welcome rest. The rest of us headed up the mountainside.

This was one of the pilgrimage sites that had strong personal significance for me. My teacher in Nepal, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, had been a student of an important abbess at Shugseb, the yogini Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953).

It was late in the day as I made my way up the mountainside, and I soon lagged behind the younger and fitter members of our group, whose destination was a cave near the mountain’s summit associated with one of Tibet’s most revered scholars, Longchen Rabjam. We’d been told that the cave was currently occupied by Dudjom Yangsi, recognized as the reincarnation of another important figure in my teacher’s lineage.

Breathless as the mountain air thinned, I eventually gave up trying to keep my group in view. I stopped to rest and when I looked over my shoulder, the luminous valley took my breath away. I snapped a photo.

I finally reached the nunnery and began wandering among its buildings, unsure what to do next. The rest of my group were long gone, and I knew that this was as far up the mountain as I would go. I found a small structure that housed a huge prayer wheel and I went inside, circling the wheel as I turned it, chanting the guru mantra.

Soon I realized I was not alone. An elderly nun had entered. I greeted her in Tibetan and she smiled warmly and gestured for me to sit with her on one of the benches alongside the prayer wheel. Communicating in a patchwork of simple Tibetan and simple English augmented by a lot of gestures, I think I finally succeeded in telling her that my teacher had once studied here under the Shugseb Jetsunma (whose full name I didn’t even know at the time). She told me that she was called Ani Dawa. “Dawa” is Tibetan for “moon.” She offered me tea and tsampa, which I gladly accepted. We sat together for a while longer.

I had no idea when my friends from the mountaintop would be coming down, nor where I might encounter them. Maybe they’d already passed back through! I decided to take my leave and go back down the mountain alone.

It was dark by this time and I had no flashlight. But there was a full moon. So I was accompanied down the mountain by my friend dawa as I continued chanting the guru mantra.

When Facebook offered me this memory today, I felt the need to experience the magic again, to let myself remember this special moment in my life’s journey. As a scientist, I often shy away from magic, unwilling let it just be what it is without asking all the hard questions. I’m trying to tell myself to stop being that way. Sometimes it’s okay to let the circumstantial confluence of symbols and circumstance move me. Sometimes it’s okay to call it magic.

I also did a little more research online and discovered a new biography of Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo, whose early associations with Nepal surprised me. I learned that her birth name was Chonga Lhamo (co lnga lha mo), which translates as “Goddess of the Fifteenth.” The biographer speculated that her name had something to do with the fifteenth day of the Tibetan calendar. It’s a lunar calendar, and the fifteenth is the full moon day.

Let’s Get Together

Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

As I walked through Boudhanath, Kathmandu, one evening in September of 2013, under a light rain, I was enveloped in the crowd. Everyone was headed in the same direction, toward the Great Stupa. I was reminded of Barcelona, where I had been the week before. But here, instead of heading to the plaza to sip wine and share food with family and friends, we were headed to a sacred place to walk in brisk clockwise circles murmuring prayers.. or chatting with family and friends. I love both customs and the way they bring people together in a shared space at the same time.

 

Nostalgia

I’ve reached that moment of awkward disequilibrium that often occurs in my travels when it’s almost time to return home. It’s an ambiguous sort of nostalgia, where missing home is offset by awareness of how much I’m going to miss the place where I am now when I’m not here anymore.

I love Bali. I love the weather and the landscape and daily life in the banjar of Kutuh Kaja. I love the deep cultural persistence, the aliveness of ancient temples that are replenished daily with artfully composed fresh offerings. I love the strong sense of place among people for whom kaja (toward Mt. Agung) and kelod (away from Mt. Agung) are as important as east/west or north/south. I love that Mt. Agung is an active volcano. I love the artistry, the taksu, that has not (yet) been obliterated by the influx of treasure-seeking tourists. I love the dignified bearing and “bright faces,” the ready laughter, of young and old alike.

I’ll miss you, Bali.

But I also miss my family. I’ll get to see my daughter and son-in-law for a couple of days on my way home. I miss them a lot. I’ll soon get to hug my precious grandchildren again – I’ve missed them and their parents (my son and daughter-in-law). I’ll soon retrieve my little bird from her “summer camp”; I’ve missed her, too. I’ve missed my familiar spaces and places and habits.

They say, “Wherever you go, there you are!” But it’s also true that wherever you go, you’re not in any of those other places you hold in your heart. Nostalgia can happen anywhere once you’ve fallen in love with more than one place.

Maybe I’ll just go with Ram Dass: “Be. Here. Now.”

Beaches

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a beach person. As a child, I got severely sunburned more than once on beach outings, so I learned early on that sun is not necessarily my friend. There’s a lot of sun at the beach.

I also react badly to wind; it exhausts me very quickly. There’s often a lot of wind at the beach.

Sand? It’s fun while you’re there, but it has a bad habit of lingering in shoes and clothing, where it is considerably less fun.

My main character, Meg, in NOT KNOWING has an aversion to large bodies of water. The water, in fact, is perhaps the only thing I love about beaches. But do I swim in it? No. Like Meg, I wade and dabble and admire it from the shore.

The beach here at Labuan Sait and Padang Padang, Uluwatu, Bali, is a beautiful beach, with majestic rock formations and soft white sand caressed by turquoise waves. Indonesians and foreigners mingle pleasantly, sipping chilled coconut water straight from the coconut or maybe a couple of Bintangs (Balinese beer). There’s also skewered chicken and corn on the cob, grilled right on the beach.

But that was yesterday, at low tide.

This morning the tide has come in, the beach has shrunk by half,  and the surfers are taking over. I have nothing against surfers, mind you. I know some really nice folks who surf and I get that it could be a really amazing experience, riding the crest of a wave and feeling the power of the ocean beneath your feet, trusting your strength and skill to keep you from being swallowed up. So it’s not the surfers I mind, it’s the culture that tends to spring up in their wake- the generic shops and cafes. Even worse is the luxury beach culture, with its insistence on all the modern conveniences of home, sprinkled lightly with a curated collection of enticing local flavors. But then you already know I’m not much of a tourist.

And yet…here I am, on the beach at Padang Padang. In Bali. I intend to enjoy my day to the fullest. Pass me the sunscreen!

 

The View(ing)

In preparing for our visit to Pura Tirtha Empul at Tampak Siring yesterday, I had to decide whether I was going to enter the holy spring waters or not. “Can I just take darshan from looking at the waters?” I asked.

Not familiar with darshan? Here’s how it is understood in Hinduism: “Darshan, (Sanskrit: “viewing”) also spelled darshana, in Indian philosophy and religion, particularly in Hinduism, the beholding of a deity (especially in image form), revered person, or sacred object. The experience is considered to be reciprocal and results in the human viewer’s receiving a blessing.” (That’s what Google said.)

At a somewhat deeper level, there is the sense that viewing something/ someone sacred or powerful results in real contact. Even westerners sometimes talk about “laying eyes on” a person or thing. With darshan, it’s as if there’s a kind of energy that passes between the two participants in the viewing, with agency on both sides.

All of this led me to wonder something else: Can I take a blessing away with me in the form of photonic patterns inside my iPhone? Can darshan happen again when I look at such images as they come up on Facebook memories five years from now?

In the final analysis, I spent some time gazing at the waters of Tirtha Empul, quietly contemplating amid the splash and hubbub of my fellow  blessing seekers. Then I walked to the edge of the water, dipped my hands into the flow and sprinkled some water on my head. I also took pictures.

 

Guests & Tourists

I’m not a very good tourist. I tend to either avoid the highly packaged “attractions” or else sneak in around the edges, on my own time, doing my own thing. I deeply respect the rights of the local people to keep us gawkers cordoned off, herded into manageable tours and treks that interfere as little as possible with their “normal” lives while still permitting them to earn income from our desire to gawk.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to see the historic and cultural “places of interest.” But I like to know what I’m seeing. All too often, what you get from tour guides is a watered-down (and occasionally downright fabricated) version of history and culture. Like pablum for babies, with lots of sugar.

I’m reminded of clearing my Uncle Bill’s bookshelves in San Antonio, Texas, after he passed. His partner, Ann, had owned the travel agency at Joske’s back in the latter half of the 20th century and my, how the two of them did travel! Uncle Bill’s books were not travel guides, however, but travelers’ memoirs and language books – Chinese, Korean, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, etc. They always wanted to know at least a little of the language of their hosts. Sometimes they even took classes before the trip. I think “tours” have changed a lot since Ann was selling them at Joske’s. I also think Ann and Bill were not themselves tourists. They were interested and respectful guests.

Earlier this week I stopped in at a little shop in Ubud that sells locally crafted fabrics. The girl behind the counter seemed quite knowledgeable as she told me about the beautiful cloth she spread in front of me and how it was used in her village as protection against bad magic. She would sell it to me for a mere five million rupiah (~$350US). She seemed almost apologetic about the backwardness of her beliefs and offered some admiring words about the culture I come from. “But why do you think we come here?” I said. “It’s because we have to get away from the chaos and noise of our culture. We come here for beauty such as this.” And she smiled as tears glittered in her eyes.

Time & Magic

“Time exists so that everything doesn’t happen at once and space exists so that everything doesn’t happen in the same place.” — Albert Einstein (allegedly…)

 

This quote showed up in my Facebook “memories” today. It was fortuitous, since I had already typed in the title of this post…

 

Bali (the space I currently occupy) invites reflections on time. In Bali, you see, there are three calendars running simultaneously – our standard Gregorian calendar is one; the 210-day calendar called Pawukon is another; and the third is the Saka lunar calendar.

The Pawukon is not so much a “year” as a cycle, “since no record is kept of successive ‘years,’ nor are they numbered or named. They just pass by.” The Pawukon is organized into ten different systems of weeks, from a one-day week to a ten-day week. Most important are the three-day, five-day, and seven-day weeks. All these different “weekdays” have names and the conjunctions of these myriad cycles is important in differentiating auspicious days from inauspicious ones for all kinds of activities.

In my new book (coming July 20), “time” is an important subtext to the story. Meg is an archaeologist, obsessed with the past. Her husband Seth is a science fiction author, writing about time travel and the future. So, yes, the subject of time comes up in their world. Here’s a brief example, in which they’re discussing an impasse in Seth’s WIP. Meg speaks:

“Are you sure they’re not inter­fering with the timeline?” (Would I mind so much if they were?)

“Well, there’s another aspect of the story I’m still work­ing on.” Seth scratched the back of his neck and frowned. “Maybe time isn’t a line…” 

You may now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!

(Quotes about Balinese time are from Fred Eiseman, Jr., BALI: SEKALA & NISKALA.)

Flow

I woke up this morning thinking about flow, about how awareness of flow, synchronization with flow, has been so important to life on our planet. Flow is profoundly present in cultures like the Balinese – the flow of water, the flow of light-energy (east/west), the flow of winds, the lunar flow of tides. We are water beings, light beings, wind beings. How have we in the modern West become so immured to flow?

So many sacred places around the world have to do with water (sacred springs, streams, rivers), or with the energy of celestial movement, with high places and low, with crossroads and confluence. The Balinese are deeply sensitive to their orientation within the flows in their world. Everything is kaja (toward Mount Agung – the active volcano that is the highest point on the island) or kelod (away from Agung) and concurrently kangin (east) or kauh (west). I want to know how it would feel to be like that, to be satisfied that I know where I am without Siri or Google Maps. To know which way is up, how the water and earth and heavens move (and me in it) and for that to be enough. Instead I often feel like a fish trapped in an overcrowded and stagnant pond, waiting to be fed.

Like Meg in my novel, I am sometimes troubled by what people call “magic.” This isn’t magic. It’s just flow. It’s real. It’s possible. It’s everywhere.

 

 

Summertime

 

Happy summer solstice!

I know my friends in Texas think summer began weeks ago, but my tropical island nest here in Bali is treating me to such mild weather it’s hard to remember the 100 degrees in Austin earlier this month!

What I’m enjoying is also a very different tropical June from the one experienced by my main character, Meg Fitzellen, in my soon-to-be-released novel entitled NOT KNOWING. Meg is an archaeologist and every summer she heads for “the field” to dig and discover. Her archaeological site is Kawilkan in northern Belize, an area I know well from my own fieldwork, which began in the 1970s (and may still be ongoing)! The last time I was in Belize I was working on this very book at a resort near Belmopan LINK. That resort has kind of worked its way into my novel under a different name and with a few other changes.

In the book, Meg’s summer is not turning out the way she planned. As she observes on page 139, “Apparently, this summer was destined to push all my buttons. I’d just been reminded yet again of how dangerous it could be to have firearms in camp, reminded of exactly why I’d instituted my strict rule of no firearms in the first place. Dr. Fitzellen’s rule was no fire­arms. No firearms and no weed. No exceptions.”

Here’s hoping our summers turn out better than Meg’s! Mine is already downright epic!

You can now pre-order the Kindle version of NOT KNOWING and it will be sent to you on July 20!

The Journey Continues

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I’m back at my home base in Austin, Texas, after a week on the road and a journey of a couple thousand miles. I traveled on, undaunted by small inconveniences like having some dude in Lebanon (yes, the country of Lebanon) try to use my credit card on the third day of my travels, resulting in the card being cancelled and me being left with only my bank card and cash on hand. Undaunted, as well, by another dude, the one driving the white Lexus, who failed to stop soon enough and plowed into the back of my car exiting off I-30 in Fort Worth.

Never mind those things. It was an amazing trip. There were vast expanses of geologic time strewn out before me, forcing me to imagine ancient seas, volcanic eruptions, eons of uplift and erosion. There were people whose experience and narrative of American history is vastly different from my own, people with gentle manners and firm rules: no photography, no recording. They told me what I needed to know. They expected me to remember it, and I’m sure I will.

My bedtime reading last night delved back into Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the passage where the preacher protagonist reflects on a wartime sermon he never preached. “The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow such a thing. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn’t allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared.”

My own journey through life continues and I remain undaunted by small miseries. Who knows what suffering could have been my lot if I weren’t so fortunate? Happy travels!