The world desperately needs more peacemakers and healers, restorers and storytellers and lovers of all kinds. –Dalai Lama

fuschia

I was feeling particularly blessed to be at my friend Christophe’s humble art exhibition—organized in his garden to celebrate his birthday and show two years’ worth of artwork he’d produced since moving to this quiet village in the eastern French Pyrenees—when I suddenly felt the need to leave. Some strange bewilderment overtook me and I needed to get out of there. I walked home alone in the warm evening air, the heavy scent of summer invading my psyche. I took in the scene around me, the verdant fields draped at the base of Mount Canigou, the cherry trees full with fruit and the roman-tiled roofs dotting this ancient French landscape. Then I called Dad.

It can be either catastrophic or enlightening when I turn to Dad at such hours. The conversation began shakily and I felt myself spiraling deeper into confusion. Dad went down his list of useless problem-solving tools until finally he pulled out this one, “You know the reason you feel so bad is because you’re not writing.” Silence.

When I first came to this village, desperately in need of a safe harbor, Christophe called from the path above my stone courtyard. Mademoiselle, he called down. I hadn’t realized you could see into my space from the road just above, so it startled me, like the voice of God calling down. Christophe smiled brightly and said it pleased him to see someone enjoying the beautiful grounds of this old stone mill house—often empty except for the summer months. And then he continued on his way to his garden, an abandoned village briar patch that he’d hand cleared with little to no tools over the last year.

I’ve been cautious about the people I socialize with since moving here. It hasn’t been a conscious thing, but looking back now I see it clearly. I’ve very much needed to protect myself, feel the influence of others wholly, not haphazardly. Christophe has been one of the privileged few, I think, because he emits a certain naivety that feels safe. His story is rich, and probably not something he’d want me publishing to the world, but I think it’s okay to say he came to this village in the wake of love and loss and a search for divinity—on his own terms. I sense that he’s suffered, and that like most of us, he still does. But when you see the flowers he’s painted onto silk cloth canvasses, when you see his now-blooming no longer abandoned garden, when you see his clay pottery unintentionally fallen into two pieces titled “they meet,” you see, quite visibly, his effort to transform mishap into beauty.

Christophe tells me he goes for a walk each morning. Ever since spring hit the Pyrenees he’s been in a mode of creativity. He says a flower will call to him while on his walk, tell him something important, and once back home he’ll spend hours working his dye into silk fabric. Christophe’s hands are permanently stained these days; he opens his door with a paintbrush between his lips and he comes running down to dinner invitations, late, with his mistress in hand—a still-damp silk tapestry of spring flowers.

Christophe lives in a tiny loft apartment that once was a stable for animals in winter. He cooks on a camp stove and takes the 1-euro bus into town on market days. He makes delicious vegetarian soups and gives gifts of fresh picked mint from his garden or he lends music CD’s the library has lent him. He tells me he’s grateful for the help he receives from his family—what I can only guess is similar to the way Van Gogh’s brother meagerly financed Van Gogh’s creativity.

Christophe has given himself to the artist’s life. I don’t truly know if he is better for it, but I can’t help but to think the world is. Christophe’s flowers, real and painted, reflect the light of observance that seems to have escaped so many of us. Standing in Christophe’s garden, smelling the humid heat and feeling the raw air on my skin—I felt intensely this absence of observance in my own life.

And then I thought, how strange that people buy art, that paying attention can even be a profession. That it’s come down to this. We cut ourselves off from the mystery of life and then we crave it so intensely that we’re willing to buy it back in the form of art. And still more strange, even more sad—that the observer must sell his or her art for the freedom to keep paying attention, that simply paying attention, staying connected, necessitates such a sordid exchange.

Dad is right, I haven’t been writing. And though that reality is destabilizing in and of itself, what’s most bewildering is that I’m not sure I have the heart to be the observer that writing requires. I’m too busy selling myself, doing whatever it takes to survive, to write. And yet, my futile attempt to live is the very thing keeping me from the source of life. This insoluble dilemma makes me feel absurd, in a panic. I feel in my gut that things like art and food should not be bought and sold.The only thing I can compare this feeling to is an ordered and chaotic painting in hues of yellow and green that hangs in the room I rent. I don’t like the order or the chaos, and it feels like there’s no way out.

For his birthday party/art exhibition, Christophe moved his rudimentary belongings into the street and into his garden, turning his room into a gallery. He hung his silk tapestries and displayed his pottery and silk and clay lamps all right next to his personal life—his dishes, his books and poetic notes to himself that, in English, read something like “To feel and know how to love, by he or she, who leads us to be born unto ourselves, each day”. Christophe’s invitees perused the exhibit and then ate soup in the garden and drank supermarket wine chilled in the flowing river just below.

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A year for cherries.

June 11, 2013

quite a year for cherries

Sometimes the big great mystery hears your cry… and replies.

Like a lot of kids, I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young. My Dad’s interest in space and science fiction must have influenced this dream. He was an enthusiast to the core, a paying member of the NASA club. Where other kids’ houses had family photographs, we had high quality images of Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and the whole blue-green Earth from space. To hear my Dad talk about space was to hear him talk about the future, about God in a way.

It was Dad who recommended I read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a book admittedly I didn’t finish. Maybe that’s because I got as far as I was supposed to go. I remember a passage in the novel where one of the characters takes off in his jet early in the morning for training. He looks down at the world and sees all the people going to work, going about the monotony of life, and he’s above it, has escaped that particular reality. I must have been ten or eleven at the most when I read that. I’d had enough mornings off to school at the same time with no real raison d’etre to understand the longing for something more. This astronaut in training seemed to get it.

I recently told Dad about the power of that scene in the book and how it reached in and grabbed me at such a young age, made that longing inside me real and lucid. He replied saying that made absolute sense, because space and science fiction and astronauts and flying—all of this is really a spiritual quest. It’s about getting up above, out and beyond, the quest to understand, to touch the source. I get the attraction. And maybe I should blame that damn novel for the tumultuous path on which I find myself.

I’ve always been good at figuring out what I don’t want; easy enough when it’s the tedium of existence that grates at your nerves. To avoid boredom I started out early charging through the walls of dullness without a plan. The Dixie Chicks’ song Wide Open Spaces was my theme, blaring all the while in the background as I recklessly eloped to avoid ever marrying into the bourgeois society my private school college represented. The Dixie Chicks sang louder when a year later I divorced and then let my teaching certificate lapse so I would never be tempted to go back into the stifling public school classroom for the sake of stability, god damned stability. When I consciously chose a partner who didn’t want kids, Wide Open Spaces applauded the freedom. And let’s not even talk about how I ended up in France.

Who doesn’t know what I’m talking about
Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

Many precede and many will follow
A young girl’s dream no longer hollow
It takes the shape of a place out west
But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed

She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes

She traveled this road as a child
Wide eyed and grinning, she never tired
But now she won’t be coming back with the rest
If these are life’s lessons, she’ll take this test …
–Dixie Chicks, Wide Open Spaces

This winter I celebrated my 38th birthday. The world still feels wide but the test has been more rigorous than I ever could have dreamed. After all my charging ahead and stubbornness, do I have the right now to say it’s hard?

Wouldn’t kiss all the asses they told me to
No I, I could never follow
It’s been two long years now since the top of the world came crashing down.
And I’m gettin’ it back on the road now.
But I’m takin’ the long way
Taking the long way around.
–Dixie Chicks, The Long Way Around

Do you even ever make it around? I don’t know anymore what I once dreamed. I don’t think I ever imagined myself at this age, bewildered by the shortness of life and all the things I’m now realizing I’ll never get to do before I die. Am I allowed to change my theme song? Do I have the right to claim the Ballad of Lucy Jordan even though I didn’t stay married , have children and settle down?

My heart wants to feel the blessing of life, this life, but some other part of me feels abused, worn out, ungrateful. It’s times like these that I like to close my eyes and imagine the blue-purple twilight  horizon high above the earth I saw once from an airplane window. There’s peace to be found, I know it. If I could only touch it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S7GoTAmvxw0

Sittin’ on top of the world

December 10, 2012

For the past month and a half I’ve been house-sitting at the eco-lodge where I finished my GR10 hike last summer. The owners needed a refuge guardian and someone to feed their pets, so once again, I find myself up in the heights looking out over a world I never could have imagined. Right now it’s covered in snow. I’m astounded at the size of the world, the magnitude of change, the wide beauty of it all.

The path I take to walk the dogs leads out of the village of Planés and into the shadowed peaks where the Conflent meets the Cerdan plateau. From certain places you see the opening of the Tet Valley below, where my quasi-permanent writer’s cottage patiently waits. On clear days you can see the blue halo of the Mediterranean Sea.

This is why I’m here, why against all reason I’ve decided to make this part of France my home. This place where mountains and sea commune has gripped me and I’ve learned that the peaks of mountains and the tides of the sea aren’t all that opposing. What’s the difference between height and depth really? They both give views into the unknown, into a blue horizon of other.

I remember a day in my twenties. I sat on a beach in Florida stoned out of my mind. I’m not usually given to such substances—even in my youth I tended to prefer staying in control of my mind. Perhaps that’s why I remember that day so vividly, because my mind opened up despite myself. I just remember sitting on that beach, looking out over the ocean and thinking: The world is immense. I am small. I want to go there.

This morning I took Tossa and Zemec (my canine charges) up the powdered white path for their daily walk. The only buzz I can claim is from two cups of coffee, but the moment was similar to that day sitting in the powdery sands on a Florida beach. The snow over the fields had been blown into sand-like dunes. From the white abyss I looked out over the edge of the world and felt its strength, the movement of the ocean, the erosion of land, the clashing of continents forming mountains. It felt like the coming and going of life.

Following are some images from my time up here. The lyrics of a Dave Mathews Band song come to mind.

Would you not like to be, sittin’ on the top of the world with your legs hangin’ free? Would you not like to be okay, okay, okay?

blog white horse

avery and tossa at 2200 meters

DSC04756

Chapelle du Belloch en haut

Chapelle du Belloch

ice cyrstals

blog snow peaks

blog black horse

blog snowdune

I only ever wanted to live simply, where I could write and smell the world. It’s been a long road, but today I find myself living alone in a room in an old mill house in France with spectacular mountain views and villagers fit to be characters in a book. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but for now I’m pleased and content. I won’t give my village a name or tell you where I’m at because I feel a need to protect this haven, this dream. Following are a few pictures of my writer’s nest.

All the season’s fruits are coming to an end. My driveway smells like fig jam with fermenting figs littering the ground. Late season tomatoes are juicy and perfumed. I’ve been cooking a lot lately. Made a pumpkin pie, sour cream pancakes, plum turnovers… For the figs a special person recently taught me that they’re best when they’re beginning to crack, bursting open while still on the tree. I agree.

This is the ever changing horizon of where I sleep and wake now. It’s enveloped with peace and abundance. What a joy it is to breathe.

More on the GR 10

September 1, 2012

On the other side of Canigou I found Marialles, a beautiful mountain refuge with a dramatic situation beneath the sacred mount. There I met a wise refuge guardian who asked me how my hike was going. I simply said it was good to be outside and he said “yes, I know”, with no need to say more. We sat comfortably together in silence for a good while. People who live close to the world, the living and breathing world, have a humility and wonder about them. I felt myself longing for this kind of dignified life.

So when later in my hike I crested the col de Mantet at 1761 meters, and saw below the tiny isolated village of Mantet at 1550 meters, surrounded by lush spring pastures and imposing snow specked mountains, I was drawn into the magic. I slept by a rambling mountain river that night and couldn’t help but imagine a life there. Early the next morning I walked into the village in search of its spring. I passed a couple crossing the river, headed out with fishing poles and waders. We acknowledged each other with a nod giving no voice to the tranquility. In the village I stopped in front of a small artist’s studio where a large picture frame was hanging outside with the words, “Dans quel cadre voulez-vous vivre?” It means, Within what kind of frame do you want to live? Tears came—this time not for anything I’d lost, but for what I’d gained—certitude about the kind of life I would live from then on.

 

The climb out of Mantet took me over the Col del Pal at 2294 meters. I have to admit I was not calling this high mountain pass my pal as I hauled my heavy pack up it (unless pal means something like mother fucker in Catalan). When, exhausted and nauseous, I reached the refuge du Ras de la Caranca at 1831 meters, my hip was really talking to me. So I decided I would stay two nights in this verdant wonderland. I set up my tent once again by a rambling river and put on all my warm layers. It was cold up there in June, with patches of snow on the surrounding peaks as high as Canigiou, and frost on the ground both mornings. The rustic refuge here provided me with hot water that I used to make a warming nettle soup.

I’d walked through so much by this point, through grief, fear and hope, through forests, pastures and rugged mountainsides. Everything in me was raw, exposed to the cold. But I didn’t cower to it; I bathed in the numbing cold river and communed with the ground in my sleep. I dreamed terrifying dreams on that ground and stayed there, long enough to face them.

 

The only thing I had to read was the April 2012 issue of my favorite literary magazine, The Sun published in Chapel Hill, NC . In my journal I copied down a quote I found in it:

Underlying our glitzy modern consumer culture there is a deep spiritual undernourishment and malaise that manifests all kinds of symptoms: nervous disorders, loneliness, alienation, purposelessness…So blanking out, running away, burying our heads in the sand or videotape will take us nowhere in the long run. If we really want to solve our problems—and the world’s problems, for they stem from the same roots—we must open up and accept the reality of suffering with full awareness…Then, strange as it may seem, we reap vast rewards. For suffering has its positive side. From it we derive the experience of depth: of the fullness of our humanity.                                             —John Snelling

To be continued…

The Thing Is

July 19, 2012

The Thing Is

to love life, to love it even

when you have no stomach for it

and everything you’ve held dear

crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,

your throat filled with the silt of it.

When grief sits with you, its tropical heat

thickening the air, heavy as water

more fit for gills than lungs;

when grief weights you like your own flesh

only more of it, an obesity of grief,

you think, How can a body withstand this?

Then you hold life like a face

between your palms, a plain face

no charming smile, no violet eyes,

and you say, yes, I will take you

I will love you, again.

                                                 -Ellen Bass        

_____________________________________________________________

And this is how I faced the mountains, with an unwavering love in the face of grief. I’d planned to spend five weeks hiking the GR10 trans-Pyrenees trail this summer, to wrap my head around some things and expand my back-country skills. I wanted to go alone and I wanted to get as far across the French Pyrenees as I could—starting at the Mediterranean with the distant Atlantic as my bearing.

But some devastating personal stories forced me to rethink the scope of my trip. Certainly not the most significant, but maybe the most limiting, was a chronic hip injury that stopped me in my tracks while training for the high peaks.

The other side of the saga is something I hope to write about some day, to share and explore out loud, but for now I’m happy to stay in the physical. All of it together whittled my five weeks down to three, the first week comprised of a series of day trips using my home in the Mediterranean foothills as my base.

Once I found a good balance for what my hip could handle, I set out for two consecutive weeks alone. I followed the trail starting at Banyuls-sur-Mer on the sea and climbed high up into the snow-draped Pyrenees. I walked across the entire French department (region) where I live. When I look at the Pyrenees from a distance now, I stretch my arms out wide and still cannot fit the length of my trek between my palms. This makes my heart smile, this helps me feel connected, worthy somehow.

I’ve been back for several weeks, with intentions to begin this entry every day. But I haven’t wanted to trivialize the experience in a blog. Friends and family keep asking about the trip, many curious about the logistics, the scenery and how it came together. So, I figured I should try starting with that. My outdoor expert and most valued pen pal and friend, Charlie, recently wrote me asking:

Was it hard to follow the route? Were you ever scared, other than the weather? (I’d written him about lightning scares) How heavy was your pack? What did you bring to eat? Did you see a lot of other hikers? What wildlife did you see? Any snakes? (he knows my big three… snakes, lightning and humans)

Was it hard to follow the route?

I hiked what many guidebooks would call backwards, starting at the Mediterranean. I guess most thru-hikers start on the Atlantic and finish on my side of the range. So my day one, was day 50 in my guidebook. This made the guide pretty useless, one of the reasons I chose to go backwards I guess, more of a challenge. Ha, as if that were necessary!

But I can report that I did not get lost during the first week on any of the segments where I returned home each night. This is not to say I didn’t have moments of panic because the red and white blazes disappeared for hours. My map and compass became close friends during those hours. But for the most part I made it to each night’s final destination without any great detours. These day-trip portions got me all the way to Cortalets at 2150 meters just below the towering Pic du Canigou.

I began my hike in early June. The Alberes are the foothills of the Pyrenees that make their way to the sea from Mount Canigou. Mediterranean flowers were in full bloom for me. Maritime lavender scented the way.

My point and shoot camera doesn’t have a good scenic option, so I captured details instead. It’s where I was at the time anyway, unable to look beyond the stuff just in front of me.

The red and white blazes that took me there…here on a cork oak tree.

The arid Alberes were fascinating to cross and it felt exhilarating knowing I got myself there. My legs, my feet, my heart, my head.

The GR10 parallels the Spanish border on much of this portion. Those mountains in the distance are Spain.

This is near the Pic de Sailfort at 981 meters. It’s quite a climb from sea level. The spring greenery was touching, the sea view amazing.

Spain in the distance…something invigorating about borders, walking on the edge of things.

I started one day on a cold, rainy and windy morning with a heavy heart. This salamander met me there.

Broom shrubs filled a field with brilliant yellow and intoxicating aromas. I wondered if I had stumbled into heaven.

Pretty purple thistle…

Lunch break at an old stone farm ruin. The loneliness there was palpable.

The GR10 crosses through villages and is connected by isolated mountain refuges. I became anxious the closer I got to these human centers. Here a friendly pig understood.

A beech seed coming to life, growing out of it’s own broken limbs.

The size of life.

Alain said once to me, how wise a tree must be, rooted, unable to move or talk, just witness…for an entire lifetime.

The change from arid brush, to high mountain meadow to shaded forest (all in a day’s walk) was encouraging, loving, beautiful.

Green is the color of  heart.

On the way to the Roc de France at 1450 meters.

Wisdom and solace.

After crossing the Alberes in hip-healthy, day-long segments, I set out on my two-week expedition from the village of Prades on the other side of Mount Canigou. Getting back up to Cortalets (where my day trips left off) took me up 1800 meters on a trail that was not the GR10. I decided to take it slow and break it up into two days. Good thing, because the first day I got lost, very lost, and had to back-track down to start over. I planned never to hike more than 5-hours a day, to keep my hip in good order. The first day out was 10 hours. Ouch.

Day two would be the bulk of the elevation gain. Because my hip was already sore, and because I’d gotten lost the day before, I chose to follow the forest service road up to Cortalets. It was slow going. In my journal I wrote,

“It was hard, with my pack so heavy and my heart so full of this, this darkness.”

The air got much cooler the higher I got. A thick mist clouded the steep drop-off and I was glad not to be in the deep woods. I didn’t stop until I got to the very top, not for food or drink. I paused only once to let the sadness weep. With my lungs already stretched from the exertion, I feared their capacity to handle the extra need for full-body crying. Weeping in that mist on that isolated path made my claustrophobic fears of suffocation real, made those fears physical.

The GR10 crossed the forest service road toward the end of the climb, so I left it for the familiar red and white blazes that would guide the rest of my way. The mist grew thicker, the air colder and a deep silence surrounded me. In my journal I wrote,

“I took the path that led through a conifer forest. The fog was so dense I couldn’t see very far at all. It didn’t rain, but the air was pregnant with moisture. It felt as I walked that I was piercing an invisible water laden blanket and that there must have been a water trace of my shape behind me. Big drops of water clung to pine needles. It was like walking through my sorrow. All the yellow flowers on the ground glistened with dew-tears. A spider web hung heavy with water droplets, yet still blew in the gentle wind, holding together without a break. I wonder if I can be like that delicate and intricate, complex spider web—strong and flexible.”

To be continued…

Sneak preview:

The fog lifts.

Inspired by more space to do the things we love, we’ve moved again. Our new house has an extra room for yoga, a workshop for Alain and a yard with garden, grape vines and a cherry tree. I feel as if I stepped into a 1950’s standard life. The French series Le Petit Nicholas comes to mind. So much for a life of few possessions.

When we moved in a couple of weeks ago the cherries were newly formed. Our tree was heavy with them and I thought it would be fun to watch a set ripen. My point and shoot camera is no good for landscape shots, but it has a nice close-up setting. Each morning I went out to the backyard to photograph two perfectly positioned cherries.

One evening I sat on the upstairs balcony admiring the fruits from high, when a black bird landed on a branch just in front of me. I watched him eat a cherry, bit by bit, leaving not a crumb on the pit still attached to the tree. I thought, that’s okay, I can’t reach that cherry anyway, and there’s enough for everyone. It was fascinating seeing the bird harvest the cherry, so expertly.

Little by little more and more birds came to harvest our cherries. But I wasn’t worried, because surely there were enough cherries for us all. Then one of my cherries disappeared. But I still had the one to watch and photograph. And then, someone ate it too. And when I went to harvest some cherries for myself I saw that there were none left, maybe a handful of pitiful half-ripened cherries from the whole once-abundant tree.

It made me sad. It should be funny, but it made me sad. Because I’d approached the fruits with such trust, knowing there would be enough for everyone. But they were devoured, every one of them. And I learned the lesson that there isn’t enough, and if you don’t take what you want, well…

March 11, 2012

I don’t have much time to write, but I simply can’t let ice and winter wind have the last word. Especially when spring is so beautiful here in French Catalonia. This Florida native is loving these new spring developments.

Rosemary bushes are in full bloom.

Bees are loving the rosemary blossoms. I look forward to this year’s honey batch.

Almond blossoms are in full swing with cherry blossoms just behind them.

Tender violets are now popping up along footpaths.

Beaucoup de violets!

And now this commercial announcement:

The reason I have little time for my personal blog is my job as ‘company scribe’ at an eco-luxury hotel here in the French Pyrenees. In case you missed my emailed link, have a look at the new website I’ve been busy writing all winter. If you want to stay updated, subscribe to the newsletter and you’ll get my latest eNews each month. I’ll be posting on the blog there regularly as well.

Parts of the website and blog are still a little rough and I’ll be reworking and adding to it all summer. So check back often and don’t hesitate to share your ideas and thoughts from a browser perspective. Please share and forward and spread the word if you can.

And I hope to see you here very soon…on the Spanish frontier in the South of France where spring comes early and Floridians rejoice.

February Welcomes Winter

February 13, 2012

It took its time, but winter finally arrived in the southernmost region of France. The last two weeks have brought freezing weather here in the Pyrenees-Orientales, with lots of cheap citrus fruits flooding the market. Alain and I hiked into the Alberes mountains behind our village last Saturday. We started from our apartment at about 100 meters above sea level and climbed to 925 meters. Our water bottles froze and the thermometer on my compass read 20 degrees Fahrenheit at the top. I’m pretty sure it didn’t account for the windchill factor, which honest and true, stopped us in our tracks like a wall on several occasions.