Saturday, September 30, 2017

Grin and Bear It

I’ve always agreed with the adage, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  But what do you do when life gives you a 500-pound black bear?   That’s exactly what happened to me on a hike in Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina this summer.

My penchant for running and biking has recently taken a turn toward hiking.  I like how it combines the physical outlet and exercise with the natural beauty of God’s country.  I’ve climbed mountains and jogged forest paths, traversed boulders and tree falls, but I recently became obsessed with the Appalachian Trail.  I’m not sure the whole 2,100 mile, six-month sojourn from Georgia to Maine is doable, but I just had to sample what this Mother Nature of endurance tests was all about.

So, off I drove to Asheville, NC, with its health-food restaurants and bohemian lifestyle, and prepared for a day-trip on the AT.  I rented a house I found on AirBnB located almost in Roaring Creek which, like a giant fountain and true to its name, put me to bed and welcomed me at dawn each day with a perpetual rush of water.

The house was located just a few miles’ walk from a popular ridge of the AT, straddling NC and Tennessee which I would hike more than 20 miles of in the days ahead.  But I had decided to take advantage of my visit and prepare for the longer hike by experiencing some other shorter ones.  That took me to Cat Gut Loop, just inside Pisgah National Forest.  The day was cool and cloudy but I figured to complete the four-hour circuit long before the afternoon rains came.

The trail was muddy but I made good time, steadily climbing toward the turn off to Iron Mountain.  The steeper ascent with the promise of an expansive vista lured me to a date with destiny.  After a half an hour navigating mud and roots I reached the peak and began traversing the corridor of rhododendrons and rain-soaked vegetation that blanketed the mountain top.

I was happily making my way to the overlook when I heard a strange sound.  It wasn’t anything I’d ever heard before but it unnerved me.  Awakened from my blissful trance I took a few more steps and then heard a louder, more obvious growl that drew my attention from the pathway into the brush. There, a few feet away, was an enormous black bear, sitting amidst the dark of the forest.  I was surprised how big it was and how calm I was.  I stopped, uttered “it’s a bear,” and began to slowly retreat.  Once I could no longer see the leviathan I quickened my pace down the path, hoping that the bear had chosen another route away that would not intersect mine.  As I neared the bottom of the turnout the rains came.  Thunder and lightning ushered me quickly from the mountain as the path soon became a stream of muddy water all the way to the car.  I think getting soaked and wrestling to change in the car briefly took my thoughts away from what I had just experienced.

I drove to Asheville and had a veggie pizza which gave me time to think about my visit.  I would eventually see incredible waterfalls and mountains that beckoned from afar, but it was the bear that made me smile.  Somehow a morning which began with a simple goal of walking in a large circle reminded once again that every day is a gift from God and we never know what lies just ahead, but if we tread lightly and listen it promises to put a grin on our face.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Finding Myself at Casa Kadam

Up a long and winding road, amidst rainforest mountains of central Puerto Rico, is a hidden gem, a chakra at the heart of the island, Casa Kadam. Named as an homage to Kadampa Buddhism, the practice of turning everyday life activities into the path to enlightenment, this idyllic hideaway is the late-life child of Sana and Papo, two expats who long ago realized what’s important in this world – that nothing and everything is one and the same and that we all have the capacity to be our own little Buddhists, bringing love, joy, and happiness to everyone and, in turn, receiving the gift of the same for ourselves.

Though ensconced in jungle vegetation and virtually invisible until you’re almost at its door, Casa Kadam unveiled itself to me after a week of detoxing physically and mentally at the Wigmore Institute, my annual escape to reset and re-center. I would spend days meandering undulating trails and crisscrossing streams, which made me think how funny it is that we spend so much time planning when and where and how to meditate, yet it’s often right in front of us. Whether it was in the tiny, whitewashed Barreal Chapel of PeƱuelas, or atop the misty 3,500 foot verdant spine of the Cordillera Range, or along the clear and cryo-cool stream which helped me navigate the forest trails by day and serenaded me to sleep each night, I felt as if I was always in touch with something larger than life, well, this life anyway.

Sitting in the cozy cabin that Papo built and Sana decorates with love, staring out at the forest canopy, I thought it shouldn’t take leaving the comfort of home for a couple of weeks to find the secret to happiness; that should be evident in everything we do, every moment of every day.  Yet each night as I sat prana in the nearby pavilion, praying for world peace and singing with my hosts, I couldn’t help but feel both as near and as far from enlightenment as the brilliant scattershot of stars above the silhouette of forest enveloping us.  It was a yin and yang unlike most of my epiphanies because I realized that my strong Catholic roots could be nourished by Buddhist tenets just as richly as the fertile soil of the steep hillsides feeds the coffee and cacao and fruit trees I sampled freely each day.

I had rediscovered the secret to fulfillment:  that by emptying ourselves, in essence, giving every “thing” away – tangible and ephemeral, coveted and ho-hum, flotsam and jetsam in the stream of our lives – we gain Nirvana even if it’s just for a little while.  Casa Kadam will forever be home to that thought.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Maine Idea

It’s funny how life provides moments of wonder and fortuitous opportunities seemingly for no reason other than chance.  My trip to Maine, specifically Acadia National Park along the jagged, rock coastline, was punctuated with sun and rain, hot and cold temperatures, strenuous hikes and restful solitude.  I chose from a bountiful menu of places to roam and sit amidst nature, sometimes at the top of it, while reflecting on my life which, at times, has mirrored the very yin and yang of this trip.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, however one looks at these things, two of the most scenic and challenging trails were closed, but only because peregrine falcons were nesting in the cliffs.  It reminded me of the wren that has been tending to a nest on my patio: I couldn’t hike where I wanted in Maine just as I sometimes sit captive and captivated by the bird back home.  The rain closed windows for longer hikes, yet I found breath-taking views on trails right in the back yard of the home I had rented adjacent to the park.  Much like the gale-buffeted birch and aspen in Acadia, we have to flex in the wind so not to break.

Yet there is no more evident realization that I need to appreciate the good times than when I returned home and fractured my shoulder falling on a trail run in North Park.  I had clambered over boulders and rocky shorelines, ascended and descended uneven, precarious trails in Maine without event.  Yet, on a level, dirt trail I have traveled innumerable times I stumbled over a little root and fell, putting me out of commission for weeks.

I’m frustrated by such a freak accident and I’m also forced to sit still while I heal – something I don’t do easily.  However, I don’t have a choice, so I’m choosing to use this time for introspection and to plan for my next adventure.  As I convalesce it’s evident that we aren’t in control of everything in our lives; in fact, I’m not sure we dictate anything without God’s approval.  I do know that when life isn’t working out the way we planned, that’s an opportunity to focus on what really matters: gratitude for everything in our lives.  I think I'll ponder that while watching the hatchling wrens grow up.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A Peek at Mt. Washington

I like a challenge, especially when it’s something new and daunting.  But when my intention to traverse Mt. Washington (the 6,288 foot crowning peak of the White Mountains range, NH) was thwarted by snow melt and rain runoff near the top, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment.

I had climbed for hours, navigating a treacherous staircase of boulders and tree roots comprising Tuckerman Trail. Several hikers wearing smiles passed me on the way down and I became more excited as the ridge line came into full view.  A young family picnicked on some rocks; teenage boys recounted how they had skied the bowl just last month; and an older man, clad in wool overhauls and suspenders, slowly and deliberately continued to climb as I went by.

But like many endeavors worth pursuing I soon encountered struggles and barriers to achieving my goal.  The sunny day grew cloudy and I passed a sign and first aid caches that warned of the dangers ahead, including the threat of injury and even death.  The wind picked up, but that was nothing compared to the steady stream of icy water sharing the trail, which made climbing the steep, stone stairs far more risky than the reward high above.  So, I stubbornly stopped.  More than a mile up I could only marvel at the beauty of the massive mountain top, a constant breeze whispering, “It’s okay.  The peak isn’t the prize.”

Over the next week I conquered several other trails and peaks and now realize that it was the trek, the time alone on a magical journey, which touched me.  Seeing people amidst such natural splendor, at peace and harmony with the world, reminded me that God is always there to guide us no matter what path we take.  Sure, I was disappointed about missing out on that peak, but in life as in travel, the road to success is not measured by how far you go or climb but, rather, by the stops along the way.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Wigmore Once More

It's Sunday morning in Aguada, Puerto Rico when I see that a new group of students has just arrived at Ann Wigmore Natural Institute.  A few are eager to be here, others a bit apprehensive of what to expect, but everyone, even those with a guarded heart, is ready to take those first few steps of their journey in the living foods lifestyle.

I have been to Wigmore on several occasions and that afternoon I decided to take a stroll on the beautiful beaches nearby. The waves were crashing onto the shore, but for some reason I became entranced with the calm, peaceful water slowly sweeping back into the ocean, taking with it some beautiful shells and stones resembling polished glass of all shapes and sizes that were lying on the shore.

This juxtaposition of power and peace was a reminder of the many students who had come through the program over the years, including myself, full of angst and stress, attempting to stay afloat through the peaks and troughs of our everyday lives.  Yet, while we are here we build relationships, eat energy soup, mediate, and open our minds and souls to each other. We arrive at the institute like so many undulating waves, varying in intensity and duration.  But by the end of the second week we are relaxed, laughing and occasionally shedding a tear of joy, while glowing with life-affirming energy.  All of the waves somehow flow into one placid sea of love and contentment.

As we depart from Puerto Rico it’s as if we are swept back into the ocean of our own lives with peace and calmness, taking with us precious gems of rejuvenation, energy, and excitement.  Each of us embodies an undercurrent of a healthy lifestyle – in body, mind and soul – and we can’t wait to share it with the rest of the world with an open, warm heart.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Minister Creek Revelation

Ash Wednesday is a stark reminder that we are only here for a short while before returning to the Earth from which we came.  I’m being reminded more every day as my body changes and I recall things I used to be able to do that my time is running out, at least my time here anyway.

Over the past weekend some friends provided an antidote to my malaise by inviting me to cabins in Allegheny National Forest, a huge swath of wilderness bordering New York State without phone service and paved roads.  I spent the days hiking and nights around the campfire, soul-searching amidst light conversation and alternating feelings of hot and cold as I shifted position near the dancing flames.

It wasn’t until I lifted my gaze from the barely visible path back to my cabin that I could see a plethora of stars dotting the indigo sky, hanging like Christmas lights in the trees along the horizon.  All the celestial beauty and magnificence had been obscured by ambient light from the fire and much like my own Existential dilemma I couldn’t see the light through the darkness.  Now the black-and-white heavens appeared both solemn and exhilarating, juxtaposed like alpha and omega, yin and yang, life and death.  And isn’t that the essence of our lives, paradoxes of what we see and what we can’t; what we want and what we have; what we do and what we don’t?

I hiked all the next day around Minister Creek and nearby mountains with a new-found zest and sense of oneness with the world again.  With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, I got to wondering what the loves of my life are:  God, family, nature, running, helping others and, oh yeah, myself.  Maybe this weekend you can ask yourself, How’s my love life?  I hope it’s full of vistas, stars and revelations of your own.


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Time to Fly

The talons of winter are finally reaching deep into western Pennsylvania.  Low temperatures and cold winds tend to hasten our step, ironically at a time of year when we should remain still.  The new year reminds us that we have so much to do and little time to do it, yet we are frenzied, often confused about what to change and what to keep the same.

I set out for the woods and a leisurely hike to hopefully inspire me.  I stopped to listen to the silence and view scenery that I’d seen before but which didn’t look quite the same.  Eventually I was moved to strike an eagle pose along the river, a natural reminder that we cannot reach new heights without spreading our wings.  Sure, staying tucked in a familiar manner is safe and warm, but there are no guarantees that this will lead to a satisfying life or even what we want.

The problem is it’s difficult to let go when we’re comfortable … even if the very things we covet aren’t necessarily good for us.  But consider this little known fact:  Eagles often plunge into the water to catch fish.  Once captured, though, the prey becomes a burden (dare I say albatross?) that doesn’t allow the great bird to fly.  So the eagle must let go and remain hungry or hang on and swim – yes, eagles can swim using their wings as feathery oars – hoping to reach shore and savor the fruits of labor.

I think we've all had to choose between maintaining the status quo or going for it.  I hope the calendar change will see you soaring high and taking healthy risks that get you what you want.  THAT would be a happy new year indeed!