Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What I Learned This Epic Year

Swimmable water in Cerritos Beach, Baja California Sur

Breathe in the precious moments and love fiercely.

This has become my mantra during an epic year--a year in which I stared down life and death.

It was a year that reminded me how way leads onto way. How everything is a catalyst. How what we focus on blossoms. How it's not about what happens--but what we think about (and do with) what happens.

Funny how I thought retiring after spending my whole life in schools would be 2013's "big event." But then my mentor, friend and "other mother" died. I was blessed to witness her profoundly graceful transition.

And then months later--when I myself was perched on the edge of dying during my seizure--she visited me. She told me that the veil between this world and the next is thinner than we think. She said if we look closely, we can penetrate the mystery's deepest beauty. She said never to be afraid of death. There's nothing to fear. Even from the next realm, she continued to teach me.

Even though I've been witness to the death of many beloveds--including my parents--the thought of my own death seemed theoretical. But 2013 brought me this gift: a deep, bodily knowledge that I'm transitory in this form. That everything changes. That I will die.

So what to do with this gift? Breathe in the precious moments and love fiercely! I was already on this path in August when my brain tumor was discovered. Months before, Dave and I had packed up everything we owned and traveled to Australia, Southern California, Boston, Cape Cod.

And then the experience of brain surgery and healing--enveloped in vast love and support from family and friends--intensified my desire to live my most authentic life. I launched Operation: Seize the Day!

Living your truth is not for wimps. It involves taking risks: emotionally, physically, financially. It involves being comfortable with spontaneity, with unknowing.

It requires loosing the moorings. When I let go of my job, my house, my neighborhood, my town--indeed, my identity as a Santa Cruzian writing professor--I plunged into a free-float.

I decided to embrace the fertile void.

I decided to reside in a rich space of unknowing.

In this space, I watched my monkey mind. It scrambled around like a kid desperate for a parent's attention: Hey! What are you doing? You're no longer a teacher, you're not a parent, you're not anything! What are you contributing? Aren't you being aimless and irresponsible?

When that happened, I'd gently turn toward my larger self, the sky mind, the god-voice in me who is always deeply present when I open my heart. It always says:  No need to worry, no need to fear. You're valuable, just like everyone else, because you exist. And the more you're YOU, living your truth, the more you inspire. Don't set out to have an effect--just be it. Trust that the fertile void will reveal your answers.

Because we no longer had a house, I was curious what my experience with "home" would be. My deepest realization so far: my home for this lifetime is my body. If I want to be truly alive, I must unconditionally love this marvelous, self-healing spacesuit.

Especially after having my skull cracked open and resealed with glue and staples, I can feel myself reaching new levels of bodily appreciation. While I don't have this love-thy-body-thing totally in the bag, I find it easier and easier to release criticism of my body. To relax into myself and feel life from the inside out. As a result, I'm experiencing new levels of sensory bliss (as well as relief from my occasional claustrophobia).

And wow was that infinite intelligence right-on when it said to trust that answers will appear. In late August, a thought popped into my head:

I want to live within walking distance of swimmable water.

That thought wasn't a conscious creation of my construction. It was a fully formed object like a stone, a heartbeat, a breath.

I have always loved water. I'm a spiritual mermaid, a former synchronized swimmer, a snorkeler, a lover of boats and kayaks and plunging into seas and lakes.

When I pondered my "swimmable water" revelation, I found myself wrangling with it: Did this mean when we decide to settle down again that I'd want a swimming pool? Did I need to join a gym with a pool? Was it a call to buy a place in our beloved Hawaii? But we'd have to win the lottery to afford a Hawaii pad within walking distance of the beach!

I decided to let it go. To trust. To allow the answer to appear as easily as the desire did.

All I have to say is this: releasing to the universe is magic!

Organically, the perfect opportunity arose: to buy an outrageously affordable casita in El Pescadero Mexico (near Todos Santos in Baja California Sur). Yes, it's walking distance to a lovely, swimmable beach. And it's in a small resort that has a swimming pool and a jacuzzi. Water, water everywhere!

The icing on the cake is that some close friends have bought the place next to ours. Built-in community.

We don't know if this will be our temporary or permanent residence. We don't have the details nailed down. We are trusting our guts. We want to ride the wave of the unfolding.

As 2013 comes to a close, we are back in California after a trip to Hong Kong, India and Sri Lanka. I'm looking forward to processing that transformative adventure while I focus on writing in the new year.

It looks like we will be headed to Mexico in May. Before that--for the first four months of 2014--we will live in Tahoe. We are thrilled we can host family and friends there who have opened their homes and lives to us.

In a cozy house sheltered from the Sierra cold, I intend to write the first draft of my memoir about transformation. During that time, this blog will be on hiatus, and I will be less of a presence on Facebook.

I will also improve my skiing and yoga, practice my Spanish, work online with my writing clients, judge a book contest, and allow whatever else rolls my way to perfectly unfold.

Happy New Year to all of you. May you breathe in your precious moments and love fiercely.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Sri Lankan Serendipity

Hikkadua, Sri Lanka

When you stumble upon something wonderful, that's serendipity. And it just so happens that "serendipity" comes from "Serendip"--an old Arabic name for Sri Lanka. And guess what? Serendipity was the name of the game for us on our Sri Lankan journey.

Dave and I had plans to travel to Chennai, India when he noted that nearby lies the island nation of Sri Lanka.

"Hey, we should go there!" he said.

"Okay," I said. Sometimes I play hard to get.

A few of my California friends expressed concern: Wasn't there a civil war raging there? I asked Dave if that was a small detail he overlooked.

"No, the war ended in 2009," said Mr. Encyclopedia.

Okay, I was in!

It's just an hour flight from south India to Sri Lanka, but nevertheless the flight attendants (dressed in gorgeous peacock print saris) serve drinks and a spicy Sri Lankan meal. Before take-off and at landing, a catchy little tune plays over the loudspeaker with the refrain: "Sri Lankan paradise."  

Paradise is a personal thing. It's also a well-worn travel cliche meant to entice (and bilk) tourists with notions of perfection. And yet, after ten days in Sri Lanka, it's hard to argue with the airline song.

For us, Sri Lanka was truly a serendipitous experience. We knew it would be cool, but it was an unexpected windfall of amazement. Here are the main reasons we loved loved Sri Lanka:

1. The Animals.

I'd thought that our experience watching kangaroos box and run right toward us on on the beach in Australia was the ultimate wild animal encounter. But that was until our "spotting" of a magnificent leopard in Yala National Park. We understand that it's rare to be able to see one of these big cats as up close as we did--and for as long (at least 30 minutes). But don't underestimate the power of Dave's (aka Dr. Doolittle's) intentions.

It was unnerving and electrifying to be in a car--windows rolled down--with this guy walking along close by, clearly aware of our presence. His graceful feline movements were all muscle and power. We are still in awe.

We also saw many other animals and are grateful that they are protected in the national parks. Here are some pictures Dave took:

water buffalo

She's on national park land behind an electric fence, which was why I was able to get this close.


red-faced macaque


Lots of peacocks...and we were happy to finally see a full display!

spotted deer
mongoose (mongeese?)

grey langur
At the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project, we learned there are five types of sea turtles in Sri Lanka. This project buys turtle eggs and turtles from fishermen who might otherwise eat them. They hatch the eggs and set the babies free. They rehabilitate injured turtles. Those that can live in the wild are released. Others are cared for the rest of their lives--which can be up to 100 years.

rare albino turtle

getting ready to hatch

2.  Our driver, our friend

Talk about serendipity: the only part of our trip we hadn't lined up was a driver. We happened to mention this to a woman in India who promptly picked up her phone to email a driver who had just taken her around Sri Lanka! This turned out to be Krish--a remarkable person.

Krish is fun, professional, knowledgeable...and we have become friends. To introduce us to local foods, he took us to small restaurants where we wouldn't have ventured on our own. He was able to navigate the roads in ways we never could have. He helped us find some great lodging. He filled us in on Sri Lankan history and current lifestyles.

We laughed a lot together and talked about spiritual things. Despite being from different sides of the planet, we connected on a deep level.

A highlight of our trip was meeting Krish's family and enjoying a delicious dinner cooked by his wife, Shali. Outside of Colombo, the capital, he lives in a rural area where he grew up. It's a family residence comprised of his wife, daughter, parents, sister, brother-in-law (who is also a driver) and their baby son. It was an honor to be invited into their home.

Krish with his daughter Sunishma, age 6.
heartwarming hospitality
Grandson in the arms of Krish's father.

3. Colorful surroundings

We especially loved the colorful fishing boats...

..and streets...

...and stores and stalls...

4. The food!

We'd never heard of king coconut--but they are for sale everywhere for less than a buck. They are HUGE, and the water and meat are incredible. We had one every day.

the king of coconut
All the tropical fruits are delicious. We ate a lot of papaya, mango, pineapple and small creamy bananas but also tried some new ones.
typical breakfast
Fresh seafood is abundant. On the beach in Mirissa, where we stayed several days, we enjoyed feet-in-the-sand meals. Restaurants line the beach, displaying their catches of the day.

Surfer checks out chef on the beach.

Mullet fish...so good.
The curries are very good. You get a big plate of rice and five or more bowls of different meat and vegetable dishes in a variety of sauces. Locals mix it all up and eat artfully with the fingers on their right hand. We stuck to forks and spoons.

We also tried kottu rotti--a true comfort food. Most tourist restaurants don't sell it. Krish took us to a locals place where a chef chops it up ("kottu" means chopped) on a grill out front.

Krish also introduced us to hoppers, a crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-in-the-middle treat eaten with hot sauce. My favorite hoppers had an egg cooked inside.


5. Beach massage...need I say more?

6. No crowds and good prices.

For a tropical place with a lot of warm-water beach and a good tourist infrastructure, it's quite uncrowded and inexpensive. As Americans, we were a rarity. Most of the tourists were speaking French, German, Russian, and British-accented English.

Dave enjoying some solitude in the warm surf.

Inexpensive hotels and "guest houses" (B&Bs) abound.

7. The history and ritual

Many of the historical sites date back as far as the 3rd century BC. History is kept alive through the ongoing use of ancient Buddhist temples, some of which are embedded in ancient caves or carved out of rocks.

Huge reclining Buddha in a rock cave.

Ancient cave paintings at Mulkirigala Raja Mahavihara.

Being blessed by a Buddhist nun in Kataragama.

Ancient city of Situlapahuwa (ca. 2nd century BC) with an active Buddhist monistary.

Given the beauty of Sri Lanka, and the ease of being a tourist there, it's hard to believe a recently-ended civil war raged for almost 30 years--and that the island was hard hit by a tsunami in 2004. Clearly, this place is resilient. If out of difficult times such beauty emerges, that's serendipity to the core.

tsunami memorial

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Giving Thanks in India

Have I mentioned there are goats everywhere?

Yoga this morning, windows open to the sounds of thunder, crows, and a barking dog or two. The yoga center smelled of lemongrass, and when we walked in, I saw a little white cat sneak in from the street.

During class, my body leaned into the positions, happy to be practicing. I watched my monkey mind making lists, planning, scheming--while my sky mind relaxed and remained steady above all the chatter.

During final relaxation, my body started to buzz. Suddenly, with ease, I slipped outside myself and observed me from above. There I was, lying on the mat. There I was, hovering near the ceiling. I wasn't separated into two parts but had expanded into a vast version of me. Perhaps the experience I had during surgery--where I became aware of my body and spirit conversing--has strengthened my out-of-body-experience mojo. Or maybe it's just the magic of India.

On our walk home, we stopped at a cart where a vendor sells delicious pekoras. He wrapped the deep-fried potato, onion and herb balls in newspaper. Fifty rupees (about 80 cents) bought us a heap. We ate them on the warm and drizzly walk along the beach. We passed a bunch of guys playing cricket, cows hanging out, and motorcycles dodging dogs and kids and goats.

As is Karen and Widi's Sunday ritual, we gave the remaining pekoras to the guard at the front gate, who accepted them with a smile.


It was sweet to be back "home" in Chennai after a few days of travel. Over Thanksgiving, we went with Karen and Widi to Pondicherry, a couple hours south, for an amazing time at Dune Eco Resort and Spa.

This place is right on the Indian Ocean's Bay of Bengal. Our room was $111 a night (love those lucky ones!). It was a remarkable buy. Each "room" is really a cottage with a unique design. Ours was open air, with a palapa roof and outside wall for privacy. Surrounded by palm trees and lush vegetation, it was like luxurious camping in the middle of the rain forest. At night we were serenaded by crashing waves and insects and tropical birds.

Our room
Included in the price was a fantastic breakfast buffet. At the griddle they'll make you a dosa or omelette. They use eggs from the chickens that live on the premises. There are also cows; milk products (fabulous yogurt and milky drinks) are freshly made. Cow milking is one of the available afternoon activities!

There's an open-air yoga center, where we did yoga and an hour-long meditation. There's also an infinity pool with comfy lounge area, including day-beds tucked away under the trees close to the beach., which stretches for what looks like miles in both directions. The warm water was a joy to swim in.

With Karen in the Bay of Bengal

Hammock alternative

One of the best parts of the adventure was meeting Scott, his wife Tawan, and their as-adorable-as-they-come daughter Oceana, who's almost two. Before Dave and I came to India, Scott and I connected on Facebook. He's Karen and Widi's colleague, and through them he knew about my brain tumor. He, too, had a brain tumor and had to undergo not one craniotomy (like I did) but two.

When we finally met in person, I felt a special connection to him. He's a warm, gentle soul--and he's lived a fascinating life, having traveled and lived all over Asia. We all spent Thanksgiving together with dinner at the Dune open-air restaurant. I felt a poignancy wash over me as I reflected on the fragile, yet also resilient, beauty that is this life.

Scott, Oceana and Tawan

Outside of the resort, we explored other parts of Pondicherry. It's a picturesque, French-influenced beach town. Nearby is a unique community called Auroville, which is essentially a commune. The focus is on the arts and free-spirited education--as well as non-religious "concentration" (aka, meditation). They've built a striking three-story dome named Matrimandir--designed by a French architect--for group meditation. You can't just show up and walk in, however. We had to get passes in advance to be assigned an appointed day and time.

Not Logan's Run

First, our group of about fifty, was shown a film about the creation of Auroville and its visionary, a woman called The Mother. Then we were taken by various vehicles to the Matrimandir grounds. More waiting and orientation ensued. Finally we were led to the building. After removing our shoes and donning white socks, we walked up spiral ramps inside the impressively vast and quiet dome. Watching the people in front of me in flowing clothes move through this sci-fi-ish building brought to mind the dystopic film Logan's Run. With an eerie shudder, I briefly wondered if we'd been suckered into some kind of ritual group sacrifice.

But no, I lived to meditate on the dome's top floor before a shimmering crystal. I experienced a sense of floating. And I heard an inner voice remind me that this moment is perfect. Peace is where it's at. There's no need to try to wrangle things into being (are you listening monkey mind?).

So on the heels of these last few adventurous days, we are packing today for the next leg of our journey: Sri Lanka. Everyone we've met in India lights up when we mention Sri Lanka. They all love it--and so we are prepared to as well.