Life Whispers

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As I have in one form or another since I left my corporate executive role last January, I continue to search and experiment for the defining aspects of my “new” life. What does my ideal day look like? How do I want to spend my time? In what ways do I want to be of service? How can I engage, empower and release my creativity? What calls to me, brings me joy, delights and inspires?

The answers to these questions are, surprisingly, as elusive as they were when I felt I had no discretionary time to shape them. As I write my morning pages each day (a daily practice of writing three pages stream-of-consciousness), I recognize how much room I have to have any life I can imagine. My work is in shaping the life I want.

For a brief time in April and May, David and I engaged deeply on the notion of buying God’s Pocket. God’s Pocket Resort is a scuba and kayak resort on a small island in the Queen Charlotte Strait, north of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. We have loved visiting there as guests, and in the last few years, as care-takers in the off season, and occasional help during the season. Our friends, the owners Bill and Annie, have decided, for various reasons, to sell. Over those two months, we thought about the enormity of such a decision, the pivot from the life we have here in San Francisco. We looked at numbers and considered the basics of the current business model, as well as what we would want and hope to develop if we were to be co-owners or partners.

Buying a business like God’s Pocket is much more than a business decision, it is a major life decision. For one, David and I would be business partners, not just financial partners as we already are. The purchase would be a stretch financially, but not impossible. And while we didn’t think we needed to live in Canada, we’d need to spend considerable time there. This was a big part of the draw for us: an adventure on so many levels, and the opportunity to live differently than we do today., the magic and beauty of this unique place. We never imagined that we’d run the business day to day – the princess in me didn’t want to be cleaning guest rooms everyday all season – and that put additional burden on figuring out our staffing needs. Our vision was to recruit someone who could captain the dive boat, as well as generally manage the day to day, and who we could put in a position to buy us out in 5 to 7 years. Our plan B was to get David certified to run a commercial 50 ton boat so he could fill in as needed.

While captains could be hired, working God’s Pocket is unique’ you don’t go home at the end of the day, you go to your room on the island. We needed to know that whomever we’d hire had a strong understanding of the place and the role. Our primary candidate, who had run the resort for several years in the past, wasn’t ready to jump in to our vision. Further, we discovered that a prerequisite for certification to drive a commercial 50 ton boat is Canadian citizenship or residency.

In the end, after much consideration, we realized that loving God’s Pocket and having a vision for its potential future were not enough to get us positioned for success as owners. We were sad to let go of this exciting potential picture of the next ten years of our lives, even while knowing that letting it go was right.

And in the lull after the decision to withdraw our offer for God’s Pocket, we have both felt slowly into the gap created by the loss of that focus. David is dancing on the cusp of retirement from his mechanical engineering work in the space industry, and I have been in that liminal space for a year and a half. Now we are letting things “resettle” so we can see what we might have learned from considering God’s Pocket, and what will inform what we do next.

In that space, the gray quiet after letting go of intense focus, I have wanted to have “the answer” come to me, clear and articulated. I want the ‘money idea’ to show-up full-born and ready for me, for us, to move it forward. I realized just yesterday that I was, in a way, waiting for the arrival of the purple unicorn, with a sandwich board for a saddle proclaiming the ‘money idea,’ and with a soundtrack of angels singing “ahhhhhhhhh.” (I know I am not alone in scanning my surroundings and interactions for the big and obvious signs that will surely put me on the ‘right’ path.)

In my experience, the call to next steps doesn’t show up as clearly and boldly as the purple unicorn. The call comes in whispers, and we are lucky to hear them. We have to get quiet and still to hear our own voice, let alone that which floats in the air, waiting for us to notice. Getting still is the last thing we are inclined to do when we are lost, seeking, or recovering from a shift in the foci of our lives, but is what we must to do navigate the path forward. That, and having more adventure and getting out to be in nature!

My prescription for us is a trip to Scotland. We will be there for almost three weeks, with time in Edinburgh and a few days in County Sutherland, where my father’s people come from 4-5 generations back. We have booked a self-guided walking tour, and we’ll walk from the East coast to the West coast along the Mary Queen of Scots trail over 10 days, ending in St. Andrews. (Our lodging is arranged, as is the daily transport of our luggage to the next inn.)

To my surprise, I am intrigued to realize – doh! — that my heritage comes together in Scotland. My father’s family comes from there, as noted. And many years later, from 1965 to 1967, my grandfather on my mother’s side, Alfredo Trinchieri, served as the Italian Consul General to Edinburgh. I remember, probably at age 5 or 6, being in his apartment. But it is a distant and snapshot-type memory, and we may not discover where he lived so as to walk by. Thinking about exploring and experiencing these family threads coming together in the weeks ahead is compelling and exciting. As is being in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by dramatic and subtle beauty and nature.

The way to shape one’s life are always found in doing the next right thing, adjusting if it doesn’t turn out to be what one wanted, and then doing the next right thing. What is next for me is Scotland. Stories and pictures to follow.

Love,
Susan

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Home Again

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I am surprised that I haven’t posted in so long, although I know it to be true. I imagined that I had posted just before we left God’s Pocket in mid-March; the truth is my last post was in late February when David’s father died.

As the kids say: “OMG!”

This post will, therefore, be an “all in” update since life has been full since my last post.

We left God’s Pocket on March 12, drove down island and ferried across to Vancouver, and then headed to Whistler for a few days of Spring skiing with Richard and Jana, our good friends from Seattle. I had never been to Whistler – I know so little of mainland British Columbia – and was excited to be there. Driving from the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay to Whistler on the Sea to Sky highway was its own thrill. It is the Canadian version of California’s Highway 1: a spectacularly beautiful coastal drive.

We had a lovely time, but our friends didn’t fare as well: Jana fell and twisted her knee on the afternoon of the first day, resulting a fracture (discovered in the x-ray “after” she skied down the mountain!). Perhaps in sympathy, Richard fell a few times two days later (and our last day there) and his knees became swollen and black and blue. David and I were generally unharmed.

We drove to Seattle on Friday, and spent the weekend with our friend Elizabeth who lives in West Seattle, enjoying her company, the city and dinner one evening with David’s sister-in-law and partner. Truth: I always feel a little guilty not reaching out to my other Seattle area friends and former colleagues when we are there. I miss them (you know who you are!) and I’m not good (apparently) at balancing family and an extended group of friends.

We got back to San Francisco on March 22, delighted to see our cat, Ethel, who has become a gregarious love bug now that she is the only cat. We were also happy to sleep in our own bed after almost three months. It’s the little things that let you know you are home…

My coach training through the Martha Beck Institute is going well. As with any learning process, I’ve had a few frustrating and confused moments, but mostly the skills and guidance we are getting is wonderful and helpful. And I’m so taken with a program that honors intuition, the ‘magic of the universe’ and other slightly “woo woo” concepts while providing structured content, brain science and practical tools. Lately we’ve been concentrating on skills to help with “dissolving limiting thoughts” – and we start with ourselves and practice on each other. No shortage of material for most of us!

All this time, I’ve been working towards officially launching my coaching practice: Clear-Eyed Coaching & Consulting. That sentence was so easy to write, and oh my, have I come a long way for that to be true.  My “ideal” clients, which may evolve as I get more time in, are executives and leaders wanting to up their game at work, and individuals who just “know” it’s time for a change in their lives (maybe around work, maybe around other things). My consulting work, which includes coaching, expands the focus from the client to include his/her work environment, systems, staff, etc. I’ve also developed an interest in working with “solopreneurs” – small business owners who need and want some guidance in establishing, changing or growing their businesses.

It is at once nerve wracking and disconcerting to realize that I am my brand and my service, both inseparable. Unlike having a corporate gig, there’s no hiding behind my title or the bureaucracy if things don’t go according to plan. And that’s exactly why it is exciting and fulfilling to be on this path. I can’t wait for my website to go live, which – fingers crossed – should be in the next few weeks.  I’ve received great and supportive feedback so far, which helps fuel me when the doubts show up to play.

My niece Natalia, on the cusp of graduating from high school (and whom I’ve been helping with her college process) came out for Spring break. With her cousin Jason living in the guest room since September (while looking for his own place in San Francisco), we set her up on the Aero Bed in the dining room. Chaos all around, but fun to have the next generation hanging with us. (Natalia is my brother’s eldest daughter; Jason is my sister’s son.) We did a few ‘family of four’ things, including one spoken word with dance performance that had us all scratching our heads.

The two highlights of her visit were:

  • Shopping at the Nordstrom Rack for potential prom dresses: we found two beautiful gowns (and one ‘pretty good’ one) for a total of $164! We timed the Red Tag sale perfectly.
  • Driving down to see UC Santa Cruz again, this time through the eyes of someone who could go there if she wanted (she was pleased to have been accepted). We wandered the campus more fully than last summer, and we chatted with a few students on a beautiful day.

And then she went back to Maryland, where I’ll be over Memorial Weekend to see her graduate and enjoy an opportunity to gather with the family and celebrate.

And in the meantime, David is ramping down his NASA project, leaving him wondering what’s next. He has ideas, lots of ideas: his updated personal business card says “Rocket Science… always launching something new.” And some of those ideas may call him to a new level of engagement. He is thoughtful about what is next, as am I, and we both are likely to keep working in some form or fashion for the rest of our lives. We both like the stimulation and engagement; nice to have income as well.

There are other things afoot, but it’s too early to share, or too mundane to write about. Which leads me to this blog. I have decided I want to continue to post, but not on any predictable schedule (which I’m sure you noticed already!). I would prefer not to go two months between posts, so will endeavor to be more conscientious. With luck, I still have some followers who enjoy seeing Dancing On the Way Home in their email boxes.

Love,
Susan

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Happy Valentines, Mama & Papa

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I  am writing today about my father-in-law, Efigenio Raul Mustelier, who died on February 14. I want to acknowledge his life and honor him. Writing about him and his life is perhaps the best way I know now to recognize his humanity, and provide him witness.  Sadly, in writing about his life, I realized there was so much about him I didn’t know. Papa was more than the facts of his life, as we all are, but part of respect is getting the facts right when we can. I asked David, my husband and his son, a lot of questions; there were a few he was not able to answer, or least couldn’t be sure.

Efigenio (pronounced ‘Eh-fee-heh-neo’ and more commonly called “Efi”) was born in 1922 near Manzanillo, Cuba on December 11, 1922. His parents, Miguel and Clara Mustelier, had 8 children (and a 9th, the eldest, a half-sister); Efi was the youngest boy, and elder to one sister. Miguel was a landholder, and involved in agricultural endeavors – sugar and cattle – and was reputed to be a tough father. The family worked hard but was economically comfortable.

From a young age, Efi dreamed of going to college and becoming a doctor. He met the love of his life, Angela Dionysia Ferrandiz (known as Gela, pronounced Heh-lah), a first-generation Spanish-Cuban woman, in Manzanillo the year before he left for college and medical school. Most of the 10-year relationship leading to their marriage was long distance. Efi attended medical school in Havana and in 1950 went to New Jersey for his internship, followed by Chicago for his residency in obstetrics and gynecology.

In 1952, his brother-in-law Manuel (Manolo) Remon Sr., came to visit Efi in Chicago where Efi gave Manolo his power of attorney. Manolo returned to Havana where in the office of an attorney, he completed Gela’s marriage to Efi by proxy. She left that same day to fly to New York. Efi took the train from Chicago and they stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania across the street from the “Penn Central” train station. The picture above is of the two of them on their first night as newlyweds, celebrating with friends and family in Brooklyn.

Efi and Gela returned to Chicago by train.  Around this time, Efi was drafted into the US Army due to the Korean War (he was a Cuban citizen but also a US Resident).  Ten months later, their first son Raul was born in Chicago. Efi loved the United States and was very proud of being in the US Army, and made it his career. Their family grew as they moved from station to station during his 24 year career, and Efi and Gela evolved into Mama and Papa, which is what I knew them as, and what many people called them.

Papa’s first assignment was in Munich, Germany, where Miriam was born. They went next to Camp Leroy Johnson in New Orleans, where both David and then, two-and-a-half years later, Roy was born.  Their first tour – there would be three – at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, the headquarters for the Army Medical Service Corps, came next. They spent time at Fort Irwin (near Death Valley) before going back to Germany (Darmstadt) this time. Then came Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, followed by the second tour in San Antonio. The San Antonio tour included a year in Vietnam, obviously without family, where Papa along with his duties as a hospital commander, became popular for delivering babies for some wives of high ranking South Vietnamese army officers. Fitzsimmons Army Medical Hospital in Aurora, Colorado came next, followed by Fort Ord in Monterey, California (where Roy would meet his future wife Kristen Swanson many years later). The family then returned to San Antonio, where Papa completed his final tour with the Army and retired.

Mama and Papa, growing older, moved from San Antonio to Austin to be closer to Miriam (the “boys” were scattered: Raul lived in Seattle, David lived in San Francisco, and Roy in DC). They built an in-law extension on the house so Miriam could live there and help them.

Papa loved food and wine. One of David’s most formative memories is of his father taking over the kitchen on Sundays to prepare a large family meal. All of the Musteliers have an extraordinary appreciation for flavors, and fresh ingredients, and well prepared foods; they are amazing and creative cooks, and most of them also love wine.

I first met Mama & Papa in Tuscany, Italy in 2003. I had just become engaged to David, and so was included in the family trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. In fact, I met the whole family for the first time when David and I walked into the living room of the large refurbished farmhouse we rented. From there, the whole group took day trips to surrounding towns, and enjoyed meals outside under the trellises. We ate and drank wine, and lined the empty bottles against the terrace wall, honoring them as “soldati caduti” (fallen soldiers). Mama and Papa were welcoming and lovely to me in my first entree to the Mustelier family, perhaps in spite of being occasionally overwhelmed by the enthusiams of their adult children and their spouses.

Papa was garrulous and outgoing, and loved to tell his stories. In his later years, he charmed the Costco food sample purveyors, and chatted up anyone within earshot on his outings to the grocery store. Not surprisingly, for being a Cuban of his generation and a Colonel in the Army, Papa could be tough on his kids, especially as they came into their own adulthood and engaged their fierce intelligence. All said, Papa was extremely sentimental: he loved his family, and was very proud of his children.

Mama died in 2011, and Papa missed her terribly these last 6 years. They had been married just short of 59 years.

Papa had just turned 94 when he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in late 2016, but he was otherwise extremely healthy and hale. He was expected to recover from the surgery to remove the tumor, but his digestive system never really worked again. A friend of mine said at the time: “Efi is full of surprises, and he has surprised people most of his life.” Still, after some time in the ICU and on a ventilator, and a week of trying to recover from both, Papa died on February 14.

Our thought was that Mama had come to get Papa to celebrate their love on Valentine’s Day. We think their eldest son, Raul, who died in 2008, made the reservations and ordered the wine.

David and I will leave God’s Pocket next Tuesday for a few days to join his siblings, extended family and friends for Papa’s funeral. He will be buried on March 2, with full military honors, at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio.

Love,
Susan

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Splitting Wood and Other Second Chances

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I successfully split two fat logs into stove-size firewood this afternoon. This is no small accomplishment for me. Last year, when I recognized the daily “nut” of firewood that the wood stove required of us in order to keep the house (and us) warm, I gave it a try so David, my husband, wouldn’t have to do it all. However, first, I was afraid of the axe. I had been warned to watch my swing so that the axe didn’t miss the log and hit my shin instead. Second, I didn’t leverage my body in the swing because see Number One. Third, the log didn’t break into pieces with one of my whacks like it does in the movies, so I assumed that I must be doing it wrong. Two whacks and I was done.

Today, with the possibility that David might go off island for family health reasons, we both decided it was time to give it another go. What I learned was that firewood doesn’t magically split, especially if the wood is wet or damp, and if the log is fat. Splitting wood is about dropping the axe with momentum – which is where the power comes from – on the wood until it cracks. That can require any number of swings, creating tiny fissures in the wood. Eventually, the log will have several cracks, and a whack or two later, it will split like it does in show business.

So many lovely lessons in this afternoon’s work. And maybe life gives you a “do over” now and again when you’ve been a doofus. Or more kindly put: when you weren’t yet ready for the experience in front of you.

We’ve hiked more in our few weeks here this year than we did the entire time last year. And I’ve allowed myself to be more adventurous, stepping in to my qualms and realizing they make excellent company when you bring them along rather than arguing with them. We attempted a hike the other day to the highest point on the island, Meeson Cone, which requires scrambling up and back down several steep hills, over and under fallen trees and including a few spots with rope assists. It was mostly fine, if a little sketchy in a few spots, and I realized how much I was enjoying the experience. It’s like I was remembering that I love to move and I love adventure. I felt more right about being out than I had before we left the house, qualms gently placed in the backpack along with the water and emergency radio.

The biggest “second chance” so far has been our trip into Port Hardy. Last year we had wanted to take the hour long boat ride to town, David for adventure and me for a few supplies (okay, the truth is that we were out of bourbon and chocolate). But we never made it as the weather didn’t cooperate and water looked too lumpy. Oh, and I was afraid and very resistant. Last Tuesday, we braved the very cold, clear air and flat waters, and took the skiff into Port Hardy without incident. We saw a pod of dolphin in the distance about halfway there, but it was otherwise uneventful.

Once in Port Hardy, we enjoyed lattes at the little upscale coffee shop-book store near the Canadian Coast Guard pier where we tied up. I bought Liz Gilbert’s “Big Magic – Creative Living without Fear” which I’d been wanting to read. We ran some errands for our hosts, Bill and Annie, and then shopped at the Save-On for groceries. A few hours later, we loaded up the skiff, and headed back to God’s Pocket. As we neared the islands, we saw a large otter, which dove under as we neared, and a seal pup with large eyes which didn’t, clearly inexperienced with motor boats.

Last year, when we saw wolves on the shore of Harlequin Bay (on the backside of our island) and I hopped online to do wolf research, I found PacificWild and fell in love with the organization’s work and website. I became an admirer of the Executive Director, Ian McAllister, for his leadership and work trying to protect the habitat and wildlife of the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, for his photography and his books. Several weeks later, our hosts returned to God’s Pocket to begin preparations for the 2016 season, bringing with them two dive scouts and the cook. Overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people after five weeks of quiet with David, I snuck out to our room after dinner.  What I missed that night, a year ago, was a visit by Ian McAllister of PacificWild with the catamaran Habitat, along with a friend Paul Nicklen, a National Geographic photographer.

Apparently, I got a do over here, too. Yesterday afternoon, we had a lovely and rare visit. The Habitat docked at God’s Pocket and Ian McAllister and his team of three came up for a visit. He was in the area diving and filming underwater for his Imax film; one of his crew, Tim, was the caretaker here at God’s Pocket after the season ended last year until Christmas. We offered tea and chatted for a while before they went out, with David, for a dive just outside the Bay.

I got to tell Ian that I needed a “fan freak” moment about his work, his books and photography (I have one of his wolf pictures hanging in our guest bedroom/my office in our condo). (Click here for the gallery of gorgeous wildlife photos, videos, and documentaries.) He blushed a few times, but once I got that out of the way, I told him I was “done fussing” and we resumed our more relaxed chat. They came back up after their dive and dinner, and he gifted me a book of poems and photos, “The Wild In You,” that he collaborated on with a Canadian poet, Linda Crozier.  And as he left, he invited David and me to visit them on Denny Island, where he and his family make their home, and where PacificWild has its organizational base in the Great Bear Rainforest. We had made a new friend: in my book, that’s not a do over, that’s a do better!

For the last few days, we’ve had snow on the ground, and intermittent snow fall. Big floofy flakes have been swirling over the water and the deck, and resting gently to welcome more. Our coterie of birds and animals leave tracks in the snow and carry on with their routine not seeming to mind. I am filled with wonder, and gratitude.

Love,
Susan

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December Darkness and Light

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I have such mixed feelings about this time of year. I love the decorations and the trees and the generally festive spirit of families in reunion. I struggle with the short, dark days, and the drumbeat to review the year so I can be a better me in 2017. I feel an odd mix of sentimentality and love and foreboding, and aspirations combined with shame. This is the first year I think I’ve seen this combination of darkness and light in such a clear way; previously, having a big day job laid a thick layer of activity and distraction over this time of year.

Irony abounds as I experience clarity about my dark frame of mind. Every year I swear I won’t feel this way. I will certainly take better care of myself leading up to year’s end, and have a baseline of resilience, fitness and discipline to guide me until the days begin to get longer again. Every year, the same wish.

We’ve made the turn with the solstice a few days ago, and still I feel the path forward is hard. I arrived at my mother’s house yesterday afternoon, where my brother and his family also live, and after dinner my niece had a crying meltdown about applying for colleges. My first insight was that I am always on guard for the emotional curve ball with my family, and here it was. My second insight was that we don’t have to relive the patterns of our youth just because the opportunity presents.

I kicked in to action. I am by inclination a guide, and I also saw that she needed comfort, first and foremost. She let me sit with her as she cried on her bed (after hiding in the bathroom for a bit), and she showed me how she was worrying about today’s problem as well as the next, and the one beyond that. She was drinking an ocean of woes in huge gulps.

I felt deeply empathetic. Her worries, at their core, are about being good enough, about recovering from (and seeking forgiveness for) past mistakes, and always, oh always, wanting approval from her parents and elders in the family.

I comforted and calmed her so we could, together, narrow her list of potential colleges for the simple purposes of getting her transcript out in the morning, the last day her school was open before the application deadline for many of the schools she was interested in. We spent several hours poking over a list of about 30 schools, looking at them online and in the Fiske Guide to Colleges, which provides the ‘inside scoop.’  (I have prior experience with college admissions: I worked as a student interviewer my senior year at Wesleyan University, and then for three years after graduation, I worked as an assistant dean of admissions at Hamilton College in upstate New York. My prior experience was helpful in guiding my niece.)

My mantra with her was ‘one step at a time’ while encouraging her to express her thoughts and feelings about college, her search and how she saw herself. She will need to find her own thoughts and inclinations in this process, something that so many of us find challenging. We know what others want and think, but finding our own voice, authentically reflecting how we feel? That’s much harder.

It is harder still to put our own distilled sense of self into another context, one barely imagined. This is why bold planning for the future can be so hard, and why “vision” doesn’t always lead to change or results. It is difficult to imagine life different from the way it is now, not without more perspective, another vantage point, and a lot of help and guidance. As Meg Worden says: “We need all the help we can get. We just do.”

My niece and I got through the evening, and she went to school first thing in the morning with a list of 20 schools she wanted her transcript sent to. I’ve asked her, as her next steps, to start reviewing those schools and to try to get a feel for how she thinks/feels about them. I’ve suggested that she’ll want to narrow her actual applications to less than 10 schools (certainly) and probably more like 5-6.

I went to bed both wound-up and exhausted, happy to have helped, but realizing there was a lot at play here. This morning I realized how similar our states of mind are. Unlike my niece, I have years of experience at acting as if: everything is fine, I have it together, etc. etc. And mostly, I do. But the truth is that this time of year, and this time of my life, when I am considering launching a leadership, life and business coaching practice next year, is fraught with questions of worth, value, contribution and acceptance. For me, the key question is when I’ll start choosing to move toward the life I know I was meant to have. And then, on top of those existential questions, the days are short, leaving me, and others, to fret in the dark.

Tonight, we’ll have a casual family dinner at my mother’s house including David’s brother Roy and his wife Kris. And then we’ll traipse off to see “Christmas at Pemberley,” a light theatrical fare based on the characters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Could there be more opportunity for light, for joy, and to be fully present?

The light is always here. I have a hard time seeing it sometimes. Tonight, we’ll light candles, we’ll expand the table to add more family, and we’ll remember that we love each other. And even with an old family pattern or two, I know I am grateful to be here with these special people.

My very best wishes to each of you for a wonderful holiday season, and I wish the best for all of us for 2017. I’m very grateful that you are here, following along.

Love,
Susan

The Trek of Your Life*

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*with gratitude to Sydney Frymire for use of TTOYL as my title for this post!

I returned two weeks ago from my month long trip to Nepal. The experience – deep and wide – has stayed with me but is only now being translated into this first of several blog posts. I keep thinking how much I have to write about and share, and realize that with election day tomorrow, I probably have less than 36 hours to have anyone’s attention before the election results capture our zeal.

I’m still unpacking, literally and figuratively. Just yesterday I finished washing the jumbo zip-lock bags I used to organize and pack my clothes and gear. This was the last chore in cleaning and storing my trekking gear. On November 1, I started posting 2-4 pictures a day on Instagram under the hashtag “#30DaysOfNepal.” Where do I begin to tell the stories of this trip to Nepal and our trek along the Indigenous People’s Trail?

The beginning is a good place to start. Sydney Frymire, a friend of my mother – Carol –  in the Washington, D.C. area, has for the last four years run an annual trip to Nepal, planning and participating in two treks each visit through her company “The Trek of Your Life,” (hence the title of this post!). A social worker and life coach by profession, she fell in love with Nepal on a trek a number of years ago. She plans her trips with a “volun-tourism” ethos, and one of the treks includes two or three days of volunteering in the small village of Basa in the Everest Region.  My mother, Carol, who would turn 84 the weekend we returned from the trek, was excited to join the first trek “The Sailung Trek,” named after a peak on the trek with religious importance, and I decided to join her and the group.

After a 5-hour flight from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to meet up with my mother, followed by a 14-hour flight from Washington, D.C. to Dubai, and finally another 4-hour flight from Dubai to Kathmandu, we arrived in the Nepali capital on the evening of October 2. Our flight from Dubai was a mix of westerners, clearly headed to enjoy the country’s “best” trekking weather of the year in October and November. Nepalis, on the other hand, were returning from work or studies abroad for the most important festival of the year: Dashain.

After collecting our luggage, we emerged from the airport doors to look for the driver from the trekking company Sydney partnered with: Adventure Geo Treks. When we came to Nepal in 1989, we were met at the luggage carousel; now all commercial contacts are required to stand on a traffic island across from the doors, many holding signs and calling names. We wheeled our luggage cart into the parking area, while Carol went back to look for “our” people. She had to argue with a Danish woman that the sign saying “Carol Susan” was intended for us not her: her name, surprisingly, was Susan Carol!

Our ride from the airport to the Kathmandu Guest House in the Thamel neighborhood of the city was nothing less than crazy. The streets were clogged with cars, so much so that the four- lane road had morphed into six lanes, four headed into the city, and two headed out. Buses were jammed with people, and the sidewalks – where they existed – were full of people walking and selling their wares. Motorcycles wove in and out of traffic, and every vehicle practiced the sport of active honking. The streets were loud, dusty and crowded: everyone was getting ready for the festival.

The Dashain festival honors the victory of the goddess Durga over the forces of evil.  She has many incarnations and is known as the mother of the universe, and is believed to be the power behind the work of creation, preservation, and destruction of the world. Hindus believe that goddess Durga protects her devotees from the evils of the world and at the same time removes their miseries. Although the festival is primarily a Hindu celebration, my observation was that Dashain was an annual calling similar to the New Year in China or Christmas in the US: Nepali workers from all over the world and the country seek to make it home for part or all of the 15-day festival regardless of their religious beliefs.

When we arrived at the Kathmandu Guest House, we had a note from Sydney. She was just across the way in a restaurant call Sarangi, named for the Nepali musical instrument that most resembles a violin. The restaurant is run by musicians, with the support of an Australian woman who spends 6 months of the year in Nepal. Her vision is for the musicians to have other means of economic support beyond their art because musicians are often from some of the lowest castes (Nepal has a somewhat loose caste system that doesn’t include all Nepalis but is still influential). The food at Sarangi was fresh and excellent, and we had several meals there, once with a trio of musicians serenading us. We were happy to lend our support to their venture.

We met Sydney and two other jet-lagged trekkers from our group: Walter, 51, from Maryland and a colleague of Sydney’s, and Cory, 66, from New Jersey, who had heard about the trek through his hiking group, The Freewalkers. The last two trekkers would join us the next day: Dagmar, 45, and Lisa, 32, both also from Maryland. Dagmar knew my mother from the Wanderbirds hiking club in the DC area.

After resting and exploring the neighborhood on October 3rd, we spent October 4 as a group touring Kathmandu, going to Pashupatinath, the main Hindu temple in Kathmandu, and Budhnath stupa, the center of Tibetan Buddhist practice, both World Heritage Sites. Pashupatinath covers an enormous area, and the holy Bagmati river flows through. People bathe in its waters, and cremations take place on its banks. Macqaq monkeys wander freely and with impunity; I watched one walk up behind a young girl with her parents and swipe a pack of chips from her hands. The move was so bold and so sudden, the girl howled with fear and loss. The macqaq wandered away, chips in hand. Non-Hindus aren’t allowed to enter the main temple, but we wandered smaller temples and the yogis’ “caves,” which are actually small shines with four large openings on each side. For a small donation, pictures of the vividly painted yogis can be had. I also gave some money to an older woman who tied a red and yellow string around my right wrist while chanting, offering me protection.

Our visit to Budhnath stupa, only slightly damaged in the earthquake but still wrapped in scaffolding, was enhanced by lunch on a terrace that overlooked the stupa. The top of the stupa is gilded and has the dramatic, colorful Buddha eyes that I associate with Kathmandu and Nepal. The area is the center of Tibetan life in Nepal, and the stupa is surrounded by stores specializing in Tibetan wares. Monks in maroon and saffron wander the neighborhood. We visited a mandala school, where apprentices learn to paint the highly detailed and mesmerizing mandalas in the Tibetan tradition, and then climbed to a small Buddhist temple located on the top of a building facing the stupa. After removing our shoes, we visited the temple and the lama tied an orange cord around each of our necks, chanting. I have to admit to feeling well protected by both the Hindu string bracelet and the Buddhist cord necklace!

Back at the Kathmandu Guest House that evening, I meditated with gratitude and awareness of being in the Himalaya, the spiritual home of meditation. We retired to repack our gear into waterproof yellow duffels provided by Adventure Geo Treks, and to get our last night’s sleep in a bed for 10 days. We’d be off to begin our trek, and camping, first thing in the morning.

Stay tuned for more!

Love,
Susan

Headed to the Himalaya

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A quick post this evening. I spent the day on a plane from San Francisco to D.C., and tomorrow my mother, Carol, and I will fly from DC via Dubai to Kathmandu, Nepal. We are going trekking for a few weeks on the Sailung trek (more west and lower altitude than the Annapurna circuit or the Everest area). We’ll also add three days at the end to explore the Chitwan National Park area in the more temperate lowlands.

A few things I’m delighted by:

* My mother is nearly 84 years old, and is alive and vibrant and healthy, and more than capable of handling a three week adventure like this. This is wonderful and special in so many ways.

* I get to have this amazing mother-daughter adventure. Of course, we’re bound to bump heads in the narrow quarters of our tent at some point. But how cool is this adventure we’ll have together?  That said, I will miss my David, who couldn’t clear his deck to join us.

* This is my second trip to Nepal. My mother, younger brother Andrew and I trekked the Annapurna Circuit in 1989. That was an amazing trip, oh so many years ago.

* The group we are trekking with has a ‘volun-tourism’ ethos: most of the treks include a day or two working in a village. Our trek won’t include that, but our fees and tips will go directly to the team of porters and crew from a village with whom the organizers have this invested relationship.

* As most of you know, this ‘gap’ year of mine has been, well, a bit challenging in unanticipated ways, and frankly, I’ve felt a bit disappointed. I’ve tried to reframe the narrative a bit, but mostly think parts of this year have just been crappy. But now I get to have this amazing adventure that will be an adventure no matter how it unfolds. That’s a narrative I’d like to work with.

We arrive in Kathmandu on Sunday, October 2, and our trek begins the 3rd. I won’t be posting to the blog while I’m away, nor will I be posting pictures to Instagram, as both power and cell service won’t be readily available.

I promise stories and pictures when I’m back.

With love,

Susan