Monday, February 22, 2010

When Clouds Obscure the Sky

 My house has many windows and this morning they all looked out on a vista of green and white. Snow. Again. Still. I sat by the fire and watched it fall. All kinds of snow. Big wet snowflakes, tiny hard shards of snow, snow falling gently, snow blowing almost horizontally. Sometimes I couldn't see the mountains or the valley.  The sky was white, the falling snow was white, the ground was white. The pinon trees were heavy with snow and a few hardy, hopeful juncos hopped among the branches that hang over the east deck; looking for birdseed.

For  hours the snow blotted out the distant views of mountains and gorge.It also seemed to blot out time, replacing the pace of minutes and hours with a steady rhythm of its own, one that defies the clock.  Minutes and hours change in a steady predictable pattern and pace. Every day. But its hard to predict exactly when the snow will start...or end...or begin again.

Its irrational, but when all I can see is snow I start to think that its snowing everywhere. That there is possibly no end to the snow. After all, I cannot see beyond it. Which is true of another circumstance in my life... The recession (and its effects on the job market) a circumstance which, like this snow storm, seems to have its own pace and sometimes takes up my entire view.

Then I remember --- If you look through a window and all you can see is a storm cloud filling the entire view you can make the window frame bigger and you'll see that the storm cloud has a beginning and end. It arises and dissolves. And beyond the storm cloud is a blue sky, untouched by the storm passing over it.

So I decided it was time to re-frame my relationship to this snowy day. I swept and shoveled a path to the wood pile, 3 times, maybe 4, happy to taste the cool wet air.  I knocked snow off the low hanging pinon branches outside my front door and laughed as cold snow slipped down my collar.

Later the clouds parted to reveal blue sky and my house filled with sunshine, making the hours of falling snow seem like a dream.  I put on boots, grabbed a hat and ski poles and headed for the deep snow in the arroyo, revelling in the trackless mounds of pure, cold white against the dark wet branches of the evergreens. Things changed again; the sun disappeared behind a thick mountain of clouds and the snow fell thick and fast.  A biting, blowing snow, challenging and exhilerating.

I moved up the hillside in the knee high snow, confident in these familiar surroundings and then a sense of curious wonder as I looked around and did not recognize where I was. Had I had turned a corner in the blowing snow and entered new territory? How could I re-orient myself? I looked at the shape of the land, looked for landmarks. How odd to feel disoriented on land I had known for 30 years.

Peering through the falling snow I saw buildings in the distance and realized that of course was not lost.
I had just never seen my land from this particular viewpoint or under these conditions. I was seeing things from a new angle and was touched by the humble loveliness of the shed, the old red truck, the grey weathered planks of a falling fence.

My relationship to finding work is alot like this short journey in the snow. In one sense I'm in a familiar landscape.  After all, I have known myself for a long time. At the same time, in this search for satisfying, sustaining full time work I am moving through trackless territory and I am seeing both myself and the world of work from a new angle, under new conditions.

There is a purity of possibility in this unmarked landscape, as well as a feeling of surprise and curiosity about coming upon the unfamiliar in this way, at this time in my life. It's somewhat disorienting and raises questions of "where am I, where do I belong and how shall i get there?" 

In this case, while I'm looking outside at the lay of the land I am also looking inside to re-orient to a sense of self that cannot be defined by resumes, interviews, emailed rejections or even a great paying job. A "self " much larger than this passing storm.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Mountains as a Tree of Life

I visited the Balinese Shadow Puppet exhibit at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Museum this weekend. According to one exhibit, the Balinese word Kayon means both Tree of Life (or cosmic tree) and Mountain. And in the Balinese shadow puppet theatre Kayon is the only "puppet" that has an image painted on both sides. One puppet, two faces.

I wondered about these two powerful faces and their influence on our experience as human beings.

How is a mountain a tree of life?

In some languages a mountain's name may convey its life giving qualities. For example, Annapurna means "filled completely with food" in Sanskrit and this mountain is seen as a divine source of nourishing care. In the Southwest tribal lands are often anchored by mountains in 4 directions and tall trees, cut, carried down from the mountains and carefully tended can be the focus of ceremony.
Everywhere, mountains, like the tree of life, are an axis mundi; with their "roots" in the dirt they extend into the sky, connecting heaven and earth.

I have spent most of my life living between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Grande Gorge. Looking East from my home on Hondo mesa I can see the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and Taos mountain, partly hidden in the clouds today, they emerged briefly as a patchwork quilt of evergreens and snow.

I love mountains and there are mountains all around me; Penasco Peak, the Pedernal and the Continental Divide. From my kitchen window I see Ute Peak, San Antonio Mountain and Cerro as well as the cliffsides of the Rio Grande Gorge, a rift that contains the sometimes placid, sometimes raging, Rio Grande River.

Living in this high desert environment I have learned the reality of snowmelt translating into streams, creeks and eventually rivers; as well as contributing to the acquifers that run beneath our houses and provide the water that flows into our homes and gardens. Here, as in the village I visited in Mustang, we know a winter of little snowfall can mean a summer of parched earth. So we too can look to the mountains, their snow covered peaks and the fullness of mountain streams and waterfalls to see how life will unfold in the valley.

Standing beside the Rio Hondo it is easy to see that where water goes, life grows. The banks of the river are covered in green grasses, reeds and rushes, clusters of watercress. I know this water comes from melting snow on the Sangre de Cristos, rushing downhill and filling the acequia madre, the mother ditch that irrigates the miles of farms and fields that lie between the mountain and where I stand at the river's edge, in the small village of Arroyo Hondo.

Apache plume and asters, rose , tamarisk and cedar juniper trees,trout and cliff swallows mark the passage of this mountain born river as it continues past me on its way to join the Rio Grande on its long journey to Texas and Mexico.

If the mountain is a tree of life, then the streams and creeks are its branches and where ever the branching streams of the mountain's life giving liquid flows life flourishes and the fruits of this tree of life are many: green grasses, flowers, fields of grain, fish and birds and all of us.

Long ago i went to the river early in the mornings to learn how to pray. I stared at the water swirling over and around large and small rocks, rippling and edding, starbursts of sunlight exploding on its surface and I thought about where it came from and how it moved, how it continued on its journey to the sea despite obstacles and nourished life, without preference, as it went on its way.

And I thought, can my life be like a river?

The river taught me this prayer...May my life flow from its highest source. May all that is frozen and cold in me melt, so that I continue on my journey, however quickly,or slowly, moving past the obstacles I encounter and nourishing life as I go.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mesas,Mountains and Memories of Mustang

I am co-producing a documentary film, Mustang to Menri - when i am not working at hospice that is...Its been a soul-inspiring project that lifts my heart during these recession times-when so many other things that are happening are not uplifting at all.
Here in Taos its been cloudy and snowing for days so I'm busy gathering kindling, bringing in firewood and keeping the fireplace and woodstove fed. Living at 7,000 ft. on a pinon and juniper mesa allows lots of opportunity to interact with the elements that truly support our lives - earth, water, fire, air and space as we say in a Zen mealtime prayer.

Mustang is another wild and wonderful place - a spacious and rugged landscape where daily life demands a level of exertion and commitment and an even more intimate interaction with the elements...alot like whats needed to live in Northern New Mexico. So I felt very very much at home there.

In Taos I've been walking through the knee deep snow in the arroyo behind my home and when thinking of Mustang, recalling the wind and sight of the snow blowing off the 24,000 ft. peaks, and the steep climb I made to reach a Dzogchen temple. That particular climb taught me that YES, I can indeed make it to the mountain top, one foot in front of the other - and that it is often my willingness, intention and passionate persistence that really get me to where I want to be - not just my physical fitness, though that really really helps.

While I walk in the snow, navigating around the pinon trees and mounds of rocks I like to imagine that i am in training to return to Mustang: because the people and the landscape there have made a home for themselves in my heart and I'd like to be involved with their work to create sustainability for the village and improve their children's education.

I've posted a brief summary of our filming in Mustang, just in case this is one of those days when you would like to do a little virtual travelling! See the trailer at

May 7– May 16, 2009 From Kathmandu to Panling, Mustang!
In the flower filled courtyard of the Kathmandu Guest House our film crew (myself, Andrea Heckman, Tad Fettig, Richard Allen and Geshe Sonam - with Ken O’Neill as an extra hand) met with Suresh Lumar Pokharel, our laison officer from the Nepali Office of Education and Communication, and Jigme Bisti of Royal Mustang Expeditions, to arrange necessities for the journey to Panling, Geshe Sonam’s village in Mustang and the filming of this phase of the documentary. We had arrived in Kathmandu just as riots were occuring in the streets there, knowing that electricity was on for just a few hours each day...but after all our planning and prepartations no one could bear to postpone the trip!

One of our first stops was to interview H. E.Yongzin Lopan Tenzin Namdak Rinpoche, an esteemed elder of the Bon, at the Triten Norbutse Bon Monastery, high on a hill overlooking Kathmandu.
This revered and very accomplished man was a teaching master at the original Menri Monastery in Central Tibet, was instrumental in the founding of the Menri Monastery in Dolanji India, founded the Triten Norbutse Bon Monastery in Kathmandu, has translated many essential Bon texts and continues to be in charge of education of Bon monks and Geshes.
We spent over an hour interviewing H.P. Lopan Namdak about the work of monks and Geshes in today’s world and the importance of education and we shared in his delight about the discovery of the caves in Mustang, which contain dharma treasures that validate the ancient presence of the Bonpo people.
We also filmed Geshe Sonam visiting his mother, an accomplished weaver as she worked on her loom, got a look at some of her weavings and heard her insights about what would benefit the villagers of Panling Mustang. In her own words, she is "happy to have her son achieve Geshe so he can be of help to people". Weaving is one of the traditional crafts that Geshe Asonam would like to see flourish in Panling and the weavers we interviewed in Panling had strong feelings about the importance of weaving in the life of the villagers.

Jomsom, Mustang
We flew into Jomsom on Yeti Airlines, passing between high mountains, above hillside villages and brilliant green, glacier fed terraces of barley. The skies were clear as we stepped off the plane and there were Nilgiri and Dahlagiri, both 8000 meters high, covered in snow and glowing in the early morning light.
This striking physical landscape plays a major role in forming the culture, lifestyle & “personality” of the local people who, though do not speak of the “beauty” of the mountains (as we tend to do) have the daily habit of “looking to the mountain” to see how their fields of barley and their orchards of apples and apricots will do.
Life in the high Mustang desert is clearly and inextricably tied to water. The source of that water is the melting snow from these mountains, which are among the highest in the world. Where the water flows, life flows, in startling ribbons of emerald green.

While the village of Panling does have water available for its upper fields, the development of a dependable water system for the fields lying below the center of the village is one of the primary concerns for the villagers and a central part of Geshe Sonam’s vision to create a more sustainable agricultural and economic base to support quality of life for the people of Panling.

Bon Temple in Tiney village:
Many of the people in Lower Mustang still hold to their Bon practices and they deeply value having a Geshe or Lama in the village. A Bon Geshe is now in charge of the temple at the village of Tiney, which lies across the valley from Jomsom. We went to Tiney to interview Geshe Soygal - who was, like Geshe Sonam, trained at Menri Monastery in Northern India .
After visiting the temple we spoke with Geshe Soygal about his role as a Bon Geshe in the a small village in Mustang. Geshe Soygal told us, “a temple is not really activated until the sutras (sacred text/teachings) have been placed in it." So one of his first acts was to arrange for a complete collection of Bon texts to be transported from Ladhak to Kathmandu to Jomsom and finally to the village of Tiney where he is reading them all and carefully making covers for each one before placing them in the temple.

We journeyed to Panling through the Kali Gandaki Gorge - filming along the way as Geshe Sonam recalled his childhood in Mustang. We crossed the Gorge on a 500 ft. long swinging bridge, buffeted by persistent winds and supported with strings of prayer flags, then climbed the hillside to Panling where we received a warm and gracious welcome from Sonam’s family, who invited us to camp in their backyard and use a room in their earth and stone home as our dining room.

In the days that followed, we filmed local weavers, people at work in the fields and herding their livestock, children at school, their parents, the headmaster and teachers at the small local school and village leaders. During each encounter we listened as people spoke about their traditions, values, hopes and emerging needs.
Villagers approached Geshe Asonam for advice, prayers, personal assistance and medical attention several times during our brief stay, illuminating the various ways in which a Geshe is called to serve.

Geshe Sonam's first teacher:
We also visited the village of Lubra, climbing to the top of the hill to spend time in the Dzogchen temple established by Geshe Sonam’s first teacher - the Lama who took him to Menri - and later had the special opportunity to interview this Lama in a small and very old temple in Jomsom that Geshe Asonam recalled visiting as a small boy.

What stage is the project in now?
The filming in Kathmandu and Mustang completed the visuals for Geshe Sonam’s journey from Mustang to Menri and the interviews clarified the various ways in which Bon Geshes use their education and training to support both the spiritual and the secular lives of the people they serve. A strong statement of the villagers’ insights into their local capacities and what is needed for sustainable growth has emerged, along with a clearer awareness of the order in which those developments need to happen. We are delighted to have the footage we wanted and eager to go forward with the next phases.

Filming, travel, transcribing are all completed, but we are still gathering the funding necessary to finish production of this documentary; including sound sweeting, subtitles and distribution. If you'd like to be part of this effort please see the donation information on the website :
The Rubin Foundation in NYC generously granted us $5,000 towards editing and several private donations have funded the transcribing of interviews conducted in English in Menri and Mustang. Geshe Sonam is busy with translations of interviews done in Tibetan or Nepali. Rich Allen, our editor, has worked intensively with the footage and we’re getting very close to completing our first rough cut of the entire 50 minute film!

* In a delight turn of events, at the end of May Geshe Sonam brought a young village boy from Mustang to Menri Monastery, in much the same way as he himself was brought to Menri, over 27 years ago!! Today this young boy is living at Menri and beginning his studies.