The Kingdom of Light

The Kingdom of Light

The man with the teeth coming out of his cheek scared me. So did the man with knobs for hands who sat cross legged on the ground, bobbing back and forth, chanting, balancing a cup of tea between his knobs. The burned man too, he scared me, the layers of exposed flesh, how the skin on his back gave way to a hollow crater that allowed you to see what was inside a person. I’d made myself look at him as I circled the great Boudhanath stupa in walking mediation. But the man with the teeth jutting out of his cheek scared me the most, and I only allowed myself a quick glimpse before turning away. I wasn’t ready for the way his right eye melted into his face. How the left side of his body collapsed, how it was the job of the right side to drag it around. Wasn’t ready for the way he looked straight at me. I’d heard my dear friend, the writer, Jeff Greenwald, talk about Kathmandu for years. The ancient kingdom of Nepal was featured in three of his books, and many of Jeff’s monologues on stage featured bizarre encounters with baby snow leopards, llamas and magicians disguised as beggars. His stories were mesmerizing and exotic, but I never once considered going to Nepal because I didn’t think I could handle the poverty, the dirt, and the disfigured. James, our meditation guide, and the creator of the Himalayan Writers’ Workshop, and who has hired me for the last three years to be one of his writing instructors, says that if a man like...
Why I Travel

Why I Travel

I travel to forget where I am and to lose track of the days. To wake up to the sounds of dogs and doves, the conch shell at dawn, the chanting of monks coming from the monastery down the block. I travel for bells and incense, to watch the sun rise above an ancient city that sits atop a mandala, to cross paths with an old woman sweeping up piles of dust and fallen blossoms. I travel for her smile, the way she’ll turn to me as I get close, her butter brown face open in namaste. I travel to see the dogs running around Kathmandu wearing necklaces made of marigolds, to let a family of five scoot past me on a motorcycle, daily meals of lentils and rice, a baby with kohl black eye liner around her eyes to ward off evil spirits. I travel to fall off the wagon, to fall off the diet, to be presented with a plate of crispy crickets and a malty rice wine tasting of sour milk. To take a wrong turn in a small Mexican village and get swept up in a parade of 20-foot tall puppets. To become one of them for a moment. I travel for mezcal, how it’s offered when we get to the potter’s home high in the hills of Oaxaca, and offered again when we leave. I travel for the wet clay that will stay under our our fingernails for days. I travel for the bluest indigo dyes I’ve eve seen, and how the dye master rubbed dried insects into a red powdered dust in the...
What Can Happen on a Hotel Bed

What Can Happen on a Hotel Bed

A few weeks before the trip to Oaxaca that my creative partner, Andrea Scher and I had planned, I realized I was nervous. The group would be small – seven of us in total – much smaller than the groups of 17 that Andrea and I usually travel to Mexico. We’d kept it small because we were on a recon mission, and wanted to check the place out before we’d bring a bigger group there. Andrea was thrilled with fewer people because it meant less pressure to take care of so many folks as they traipsed around Oaxaca. I was nervous because my 32-year-old second cousin Katie was coming. Katie is more than great, let me just say that. She stands out in our family of 40 or so people. It’s not just her sometimes blue or lavender hair, which is the envy of all of us. The last time I saw her at a family gathering I think we called the color Mermaid; a silver green and blue, slightly metallic, maybe something yellow in there. She carries it well. She’s an artist, a writer, a sound engineer. She’s also fairly quiet. Maybe that was it. Maybe that was my nervousness. I’d tried over the last few years to connect with her at parties, chatting her up about her art and what she cared about. She writes a blog called Word Vomit Wednesday, and she’s a really smart writer – writes about culture and her own experiences. But I never felt I got very far with her in those conversations. Sometimes they felt one sided. I wanted us to...
Notes From a Sabbatical

Notes From a Sabbatical

Photo Credit: Sonya Lea Mostly it’s the time I’m after. The slower mornings, the lingering cup of coffee, pajamas sometimes until 10 am. It’s waking up and trying to remember what day it is. It’s paying attention to my stomach – where the anxiety lives. It’s noticing how even though I’ve given myself some time to take a breath this fall, the stomach still gets tight and I ask myself, “What is that? What am I afraid of?” It’s the list I made back in June where I wrote down all the things I could do during the sabbatical; take the online photography class, travel to Greece, get in my garden, complete a draft of the book I’ve been working on for three years, create that piece of art I’ve been seeing in my mind.  It’s noticing right after I made the list, that I moved toward none of those things – it’s how I got curious about that. The reluctance to fill empty space. The reluctance to get busy, to make another list. It’s how a friend commented that if I have nothing to show from these four months off – no draft of book – no piece of sculpture – no pictures from Greece – that I may have actually, I don’t know, accomplished something. It’s spending time with my 24-year-old daughter who has moved back home to find new work. It’s making coffee for two in the morning, then juicing celery because my friend Lisa told us it’d keep us alive. It’s doing jumping jacks in the living room together and making obnoxious faces as we...
Lost in a Sea of Humanity

Lost in a Sea of Humanity

A few years ago I found myself running alone down a trail in the Himalayas, Nine Inch Nails playing on my headphones, rain lightly falling around me. I’d left my friend Sunny and our Sherpa, Raja, on the trail behind me. We’d been hiking for five days on a route that took us to a town called Namche Bazaar – which is on the way to the Everest Base Camp. Curiously, the landscape smelled and looked a lot like the Sierras back home in California; the dirt under our feet was rust colored, the trees smelled like pine, and there was a fast flowing, white water river a thousand feet below the trail. My arms were stretched out like wings as I flew down that trail in the rain – just because I could – just because I was completely happy, and because I’d come to love the freedom of being on my own so far from home. Travel has been an incredible surprise to me in the last bunch of years. Almost immediately after the kids and Mark left, I started getting invitations to go places – but really far flung places like Nepal and Bali – which is funny because up until then I’d been a complete home body – didn’t travel – loved nothing more than making a nest on the couch all weekend surrounded by paper and books. If you asked me where I dreamed of going, I had no idea. And then overnight I’m running the streets of Ubud, in Bali, at sunrise – running through early morning markets where I’m the only Westerner...