Friday, June 29, 2012

A 4 x 6 Cell

June 29, 2012 – A 4 x 6 Cell

I find it funny that I spend the last week of my Jesus year at a Vipassana meditation center under a vow of silence. When I planned this trip I knew it’d catch me on my birthday, and I thought, “Why the heck not? Last year I spent my birthday in Winter. This year I’ll spend it in Silence.” After the year’s worth of noise absorption in Lima, a week and a half of silence sounds like the perfect present. I have just a little twinge of attention-desiring regret when I think that I won’t know who’s out there wishing me a happy birthday on the actual day, but it’s not strong enough to prevent me from heading into this craziness.

And the silence is fantastic. For the first time in (perhaps) my memory the nights are completely quiet. At least from human noise. For ten entire glorious days I don’t hear a single car alarm. I don’t hear any phones ringing, any screaming kids, any honking horns, no blasting music, no angry neighbors, no slamming doors, no screeching tires, not a single whistle or yell, no sirens, not even the streaming sounds of some television show or sports game filtering in through thin walls. Only once do I hear a dog barking in the distance, and it stops after a reasonable amount of canine protest. I sleep without ear plugs, straining my hearing out of habit to listen for anything, to distinguish sounds – but no, it’s beautifully still.

The silence nearly makes me cry from joy.

This isn’t to say there is no sound. The cicadas play their symphonies all day and into the night. Crickets violin their legs into music. Songbirds sing. Frogs chirrup. The wind plays the leaves like guitar strings. Grasshoppers pop out of the grass with startled, noisy eruptions. Tall grass rubs shoulders with weeds with a shifting percussion. And throughout the day, the hours are marked off by the chiming of the gong.

Wake up is at 4:00 AM followed by a 4:20 reminding gong of the 4:30 start to the first meditation session. Breakfast is gonged for at 6:30. The call for wake up, meals and sessions all reverberate through the halls in a deep, melodic, humming throb. I listen, often times impatiently, for that sound throughout the day.

I’ve made it past Day 5 and Day 6. After the horror of Day 4, the exercises feel diminished in suffering and I seem to have learned how to observe misery instead of staying inside it. For the most part. This is not to say that it’s easy. Not at all. There are times during the hour long Strong Determination Sits (where the goal is to not change posture) when I think I can’t sit still for another second--praying for the teacher’s voice to startle me with his wrap-up chanting, demanding of him in my head to end it, convinced that the time is over, it has to be with my foot numb or tingling, my back arced into a bow to relieve the pressure from my shoulders, or my head bent over--but somehow I do. In some sessions, half an hour or forty-five minutes in, I get bored. Over the course of the time, I plan entire Judo training sessions for the kids’ class at my old dojo (with long inspirational and/or chastising speeches included). Worry through the itinerary of my upcoming summer trip, calculate expenses, practice the five phrases of Swedish I’ve learned and plan outfits. I also relive my entire childhood, teen years and adult life to date. Anything to keep from the task of observing the sensations that are moving, shifting, twitching over my skin, anything to take my mind off the discomfort or the boredom of physical inertia.

A few times, I jolt upright, startled awake by the forward inclining motion of a swiftly onset nap. 

The Vipassana Center is well maintained, both the grounds and the course. It’s run by a volunteer staff made up of previous students. Somehow it’s a flawless system that runs better than many well-oiled machines I’ve met. I’m one of about 100 new students and 20 volunteers. The servers serve us a buffet styled breakfast and lunch of vegetarian food every day. There are always at least two main dish options to choose from and then salad, soups, breads, vegetables and fruits. Two of the lady servers are cooks; one a specialist in Indian food and the other in Thai food. I find out later that Jesse was asked to be the kitchen manager when she arrived. She does a phenomenal job, and I think I should get her to manage all the kitchens I encounter for the rest of my life. I could eat this way every day. I find that as the week goes by I’m eating less, craving less, and losing the slight rotundity I’d acquired from being off my usual workout schedule.

Dinner is fruit and tea. 

It’s good eating.

On my birthday eve the food is fantastic. There’s curry and a mung bean soup that’s to die for, pita bread, plenty of dark green salad stuff and a sunflower dressing that I want the recipe for. All day I remind myself that my birthday is impending and that today is my last day to be 33. I like birthdays.
At the beginning of the final session in the main Dhamma hall I find a piece of paper on my meditation cushion that tells me I can use room 27 in the pagoda from Day 7 to Day 10 during the personal meditation times if I so desire.

Just in time for my birthday, I think.
The lights go out at 9:30 and I curl up into the silence and bid my thirty-third year a fond adieu.
At 4:00 in the morning on June 20th I’m woken by the gong’s low vibrations.
Happy birthday I grumble to myself in my mind.

It’s my birthday!

I put my shoes on by the back door, turn on my feeble flashlight and trek over the tall grass to the pagoda, trying to avoid walking into spider webs as I go. At the building, my shoes stay outside and I go in. The place is quiet as a tomb. I tiptoe up the carpeted stairs and creep into my little room. There’s a single blue cushion on the floor. I add an extra one and sit cross legged. There’s a light switch at standing level by the door and one at sitting level by my cushion. I flip the light off and meditate in the darkness in the complete and utter and most glorious silence I’ve ever known. The only thing that breaks the silence is the sound of the blood rushing through my ears and the occasional rumble of my belly.
It’s like the silence I’ve dreamed of all my life.

Half an hour later, when Goenka’s voice breaks over the speakers in his raspy chant, I flee the building thinking that the half hour of silence and the solitude of my own cell were the best birthday presents I could have gotten.

I’m so weird, I think.
I head over to The Lake to see what’s on The Lake Show before going to finish the two hour session in my room. I’ve been down to the grass edge everyday watching the show. And there’s never been a disappointing episode. This morning, there’s a mist wisping up off the surface of the water. A few lazy dragonflies buzz about. An early rising turtle lolls in the middle of the lake and the black snake slithers near the shoreline looking for breakfast. A cardinal zips across from one tree to another and the locusts are in full song. It sounds just like Happy Birthday. More or less. 

The little orange tree spiders that live up among the leaves, are sitting patiently in their webs waiting for their meals to arrive. Once a bug gets caught, they wrap it up, undo their webs and ascend back into the shade of the tree. I’m fascinated by them. 

The first time I saw one of the spiders undoing her web I thought maybe she’d just dropped a stitch and wanted to start her web all over. I got caught up in the Spider Show the first morning I went over to The Lake and felt a bit of disappointment when the next day there was no big spider activity, but it turns out there is so much more to watch.

Just observe. Just observe. Just observe. The words echo through my head in Goenka’s Indian accent. Down there, it’s not just a Spider Show it’s the Lake Show! I watched it every day.
So I observe. Today I’ve arrived early enough to see five separate little orange spiders waiting on their webs. I love them with all my heart.

To try and seem like I’m keeping up with the full two hour meditation session on Day 7’s schedule, I head back to my room and sit against the wall with my eyes closed and try to focus on a body sweep. I’m poised and ready to move though.

I’m out the door before the breakfast gong stops and one of the first in line. My dad and I reach our dining room doors at the same time. We almost make eye contact and I think he’s about to mouth Happy Birthday, but I look away. Under the code of discipline we’re not supposed to even acknowledge each other by nods, waves, words or eye contact. The goal of the course is to live the ten days as if you were alone. That’s supposed to maximize the effects of “mental refinement through self-observation” (Introduction to Vipassana Meditation Brochure). I want to keep the rules, but I also want that special attention.

On the chalkboard outside the dining area, in a small corner underneath the morning menu, are the letters HB  –ros. I stare at it and think, I wonder what that is. Later on, when my brain returns (and then reaffirmed after I talk to Jesse) I realize it’s a birthday card from Jesse to me using my nickname. We call each other Gildenstern and Rosencrantz and abbreviate our names to G and Ros when we sign off on things.

At lunchtime, like a birthday miracle, my dad and I arrive at our segregated doors at the same time again. This time I don’t look away. He gives me a tiny birthday hand wave and I give him a smile. It’s a perfect day.

With the lunch fare, there’s carrot cake and I make a great mental fuss about it being my birthday cake. Remember I said I like birthdays. Jesse tells me later that she and one of the other girls set aside one of the pieces and carved a tomato into a flower decoration. But I didn’t see it in time, not thinking I was in the mood for dessert until most people had visited the dessert table, and someone absconded with my official birthday cake. But in reality, learning about it afterward was just about as special as having seen it and eaten it.

Sometimes it really is the thought that counts.

The rest of the day goes on by. I see a gorgeous sunset and realize it’s also the summer solstice. Not much later, as I put my head to my pillow I think this is probably the only birthday so far that I’ve been up before sunrise and gone to bed this early. And also, that I might be one of the only people who is thrilled ecstatic with getting her own personal 6x4 cell as a present.

You’re a strange one, I tell myself.

Who knows where I’ll go, what I’ll do when I turn 35.

*Credit for the word “rotundity” goes to my youngest brother Phinehas who came home while I was in the middle of writing this blog and gave his valuable vocabularic insight when I couldn’t think past “pudgy”. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012


June 28, 2012 – Misery

I sit with my legs folded under each other, my right hand cradling the left, and my eyes closed. A heavy cross of pain weighs down on my shoulder blades and spine. My right foot lies tucked under my left knee and the pressure is putting the limb to sleep. My neck has stiffened up and I want to crack it. I hope the sensation across my scalp and inching down my cheek is not really a spider. I hope. An itch rises up on my shoulder. A soft breeze from the air conditioning touches my cheek, flinches down my arm. Sensations rise and fall and I feel each one like a deeply personal insult.
I want to cry. This is day four of the ten day Vipassana course and this is the first official Vipassana sit. It’s two hours long and I’m not supposed to move. I’m not supposed to break my posture. All I’m supposed to do is notice the sensations that arise and pass away over my body. Notice them but not react to them. I want to move so badly. I’m praying silently to anybody who will listen that the time is almost up, but I know it’s not. I don’t even think one hour has gone by.
Whether or not misery is truly a universal truth I’m feeling it.
I’m miserable.
This hurts. And I’m no stranger to pain. I’ve put my body through hell before when training for Judo and in weight lifting. I’ve deprived myself of food and drink to make weight for competitions. I’ve pushed my body to the limit time and again. I’ve suffered through the intense pain of rheumatoid arthritis. I’ve done ten day liquid fasts. But this is a torture. This is insanity. I thought Vipassana was supposed to free me from misery. Why would Jesse think this was good? Why in anyone’s name would she recommend this to us? Does she hate me? I might be a masochist, but this is even too much for me.
My mind bucks with protests. I should just get up and leave. This is stupid. I don’t even want to be enlightened. What the heck am I doing here? Why would anybody do this to themself? And why would they come back to do it again? If Vipassana is truly “seeing things as they really are” then I’m not sure I want to be seeing them.
But I sit.
I sit in a body shaped immobile casket of pain. I sit in the midst of my own misery.
Finally. Eventually. At last the time is up.
We’re dismissed from the Dhamma Hall and I walk out with quaking legs to the course boundary sign. The gravel drive stretches out in front of me. My muscles tense and I shift forward on my toes to run. I’ll just go. I’ll just run until I can’t run anymore. Just to get away from here. Then I give a half sob, half laugh. I’m not wearing the right shoes for that. And then what would I do? Wait for my dad and sister for six days at the end of one of these country roads? Call my mom from a pay phone to come pick me up? Give up on something? Quit before the end? No way.
I’ve committed to stay the full ten days. Damn me and my need to see things through. What am I going to do for the next six days? How am I going to last this out? What have I gotten myself into?
On Day One I learned to “watch” my breath. The melodic inflections of S. N. Goenka’s Indian accent rose and fell like a song. He instructed us through the technique via a recording. “If the breath is shallow, it is shallow. If it is deep, it is deep. Do not force it. Just observe the natural flow of the breath. Where it hits on the inside of the nostrils. Where it hits on the rim of the nostrils. Just observe. Just observe. Just observe.” Over the ten days I come to hate his voice. I detest the repetition. I abhor the creepy way he elongates words. It feels like the kind of tone one would use to brainwash the unsuspecting. I don’t want to be brainwashed.

Then on the other hand, I come to desire his voice. I wait for it. I long for it. His chanting signals the end of the sessions. His words give new aspects to the technique which help me from being bored completely out of my mind. The evening video discourses explain what Vipassana does and some of Goenka’s stories even make me laugh.

His voice creates both aversion and craving in me. The two things that Goenka tells us create misery. Cravings lead to clinging which leads to misery. Aversion leads to hate, anger, frustration, depression which all lead to misery. I see the truth in that. So I learn to become equanimous to his voice. I just listen to it and let go my aversion and release my craving. I just observe. I practice perfect equanimity. It’s harder than you’d think.
In addition to our media present teacher Goenka, the men have a male assistant teacher and the females have a female assistant teacher. They moderate the Sits and are available for interviews from 12:00 to 1:00 each day to answer questions about the technique or methods or the rationale of Vipassana. They sit on a raised platform before us. We all sit on cushions on the floor. Men on the left. Women on the right. The teachers sit like statues. I feel like a fidgety child inside and out.
What is it about us humans that makes us want to distinguish between stations? Teacher and Student. Old versus New. Server versus Meditator. Intelligent versus ignorant. Enlightened versus the miserable.

I don’t mind learning from someone. I lack so much. But I don’t want to be a disciple. Some blind follower. I don’t want to be caught up in some movement. So what am I doing here? I want what Vipassana promises – Liberation. I love my freedom. If I can be free in body and free in mind, that’s a win, right? I want to be at peace. I want to see the world in new ways. I want to be mindful. I want to be aware. I want to live life to its ultimate fullness. Those are the end results I’m hoping to gain.
Yet, I sit at the feet of these teachers and revolt in my mind. Why? Why? How? What? Then I chide my wandering thoughts and refocus on my breath.
On Day Two I learn to expand my area of focus. I watch for sensations in the triangular area from the bridge of my nose to the edge of my upper lip. All the while I still pay attention to the in and out of my breath. If I have a tickle on the side of my nose, I observe it. I don’t reach up to scratch it. I don’t wish it to go away. I just feel it. I’m learning to experience sensation without creating a craving or an aversion to it. The point of this is to develop (Goenka says it “devil-ip”) “a more stable and concentrated mind by learning to fix one’s attention on the natural reality of the ever-changing flow of the breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils (Introduction to Vipassana Meditation Brochure).”
On Day Three I narrow my focus to the sensations from the rim of my nostrils to the edge of my upper lip. This is all leading up to the fourth day where the hope is that I’ll have a calmer and more focused mind so that I can learn the practice of Vipassana itself: “the observation of sensations throughout the body, the experiential understanding of their changing nature and the development of a balanced mind by learning not to react to them (Introduction to Vipassana Meditation Brochure).”
Up to this point my main problem has been keeping my mind on task. When it wanders I gently bring it back to the technique. Or I bully it back. This is mental training at its most intense. I find myself being lazy, letting my imaginations run rampant through the trails of my brain. I find deadness that looks suspiciously like boredom. I see apathy and indifference. Get back to work, I tell myself sternly, use this time wisely.
And then Day Four comes. Hell. Misery. Pain. Agitation. Doubt. I leave the course boundary at the front of the property and head toward the women’s dormitory. Grasshoppers take flight up out of the tall grass like bursting corn kernels.  I use the path that winds by the small pond – I title it The Lake – and go to stand still at the overlook area, licking my wounds as I listen to the cicadas sing and the birds chime and the wind strum through the trees. I’m soul sick. Hurt. Miserable. Tired. Even the noble silence around me doesn’t seem silent enough.

A black water snake slinks through the algae at the edge of water. It’s beautiful. Smooth. Graceful. Existing in the beauty of this moment. Does it feel misery or joy?
I think back to my childhood and the times I went to my grandparents’ place in the country (only miles from where I am now) and how my grandmother told us to walk tall and noisy through the grass to scare away snakes. There’d been rattlesnakes, copperheads, water moccasins, grass snakes. How she once killed a copperhead that my sister nearly stepped on. How she pointed out the water moccasins to us and told us to be careful around the water. How we never swam in their tank. How we carefully turned over the little boat we used to paddle around in, in case there were sleeping serpents underneath. How we’d check our shoes for scorpions. How we’d look under our bed covers for scorpions, spiders or other undesirable bedfellows. How we’d dab our socks with sulfur to keep the chiggers from eating us up. How we’d walk a wide path around fire ant hills. How sharp and violent and dangerous that world was that we mashed down to make comfortable and safe for ourselves.
When I signed up for this I agreed to observe five moral precepts for at least the minimum of the duration of the course.
       1.       to abstain from killing any being

2.       to abstain from stealing

3.       to abstain from all sexual activity

4.       to abstain from telling lies

5.       to abstain from all intoxicants

I watch this black snake with wonder. How easy it is to kill the scary things around us. To protect ourselves. To ensure our safety. Because we’re too lazy to try and relocate what we feel is a danger or a nuisance to ourselves. I don’t want to kill.
I’ll stay here, snake, I think to it (since I’ve taken a vow of noble silence), and you stay there, okay?

I’ve got a few minutes of rest before the next session and I decide to go nap in my room. With the snake on my mind I look down at the path before I step. A glimpse of white catches the corner of my eye. With perfect equanimity, I don’t react. Then I smile a small tiny smile. It’s a moth. It sits on my shoulder. It stays there for a long moment. And I almost cry. It sits on my shoulder, a comforting imperceptible touch, as if to say, “You made it through the worst. You can do this. You’re okay. ” With its message made, it flitters away.
I go back to my room, slightly salved, and rest.
During the fourth day’s evening discourse Goenka talks about misery. I realize that I had lived that two hour Vipassana session inside, in the middle of, in full acceptance of my self-made misery. Lesson learned. That’s the point. Object lesson fully experienced. I don’t want to ever go through that again. And yet, that’s how we mostly live; so consumed by our pain that we can see nothing else. So wrapped up in our anger, disappointment, hurt, grief, or hate that we can’t even notice how we create the misery for ourselves. Vipassana teaches how we can observe the unpleasant things in life without being eaten up by them. Vipassana also teaches how to observe the pleasant things in life so that we can avoid attachment which leads to clinging and disappointment. All things come. And then all things go away. That’s the nature of life. It’s impermanent. Nothing lasts forever. Neither the good nor the bad. Didn’t Hamlet say that? It’s our thinking that makes it so.

My sense of humor throws off the dirt I’d buried it with and resurrects itself miraculously. Welcome back, I think with gratefulness. I thought you’d gone for good.
My sense of humor laughs at me.

I know how to do this now. It’s not so different from how I dealt with the constant and nagging pain of rheumatoid arthritis. I lived with it for years, intense, crippling, mind-searing pain, but somehow managed not to let it incapacitate me. I did everything I could to alleviate the disease while determining to not let anything—not even RA– limit me in living my life the way I wanted to live it. There I got lucky, I found relief. In the process of healing, I reshaped my whole life. Maybe that was the beginning steps toward my own enlightenment. Whatever that might mean.
Goenka never exactly preaches hope (as the opposite of misery) in his discourses or in the systematic meditation instructions he gives during the sessions. He says the path to enlightenment, the path out of misery is a hard one. “Work out your own salvation,” is one of the ideas that accompanies the technique. We each have to find our own way from the bank of misery and across the river to the other side. It’s a life journey of serious work. But he says if you work at it then “You are bound to be successful. Bound to be successful.”

Yeah. Okay. I don’t know that I want to adopt this for the rest of my life, but I can at least see this course through. I’ll count that as success. I have no idea what I’ll get out of this entire experience. But I think I have made it through the worst.  
“You are here for ten days to give this technique a fair trial,” Goenka intones, “So use your time wisely. Work diligently. Diligently. Work ardently. Work ardently.”
I can do that. I can survive the very fires of hell if I know it’s temporary. Misery doesn’t have anything on me. Especially not the misery I’ve created for myself.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Doing what Terrifies Me

June 27, 2012 – Doing what Terrifies Me

“Well?” I demand impatiently of my sister Jesse, “How was it?” It’s February and she’s just returned from a ten day Vipassana meditation course held in Kaufman, Texas. She’d told me she’d be going and I’ve been living through the time with curiosity.

“It was the best and hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she replies. “You should do it too!”

“Tell me all about it,” I say. If Jesse says something is hard then I know to watch out. She’s hardcore. Tough is her middle name. If she says something’s good it probably is. Her recommendations for books, films, articles, and life adventures have always been spot on. A new passion and joy vibrates through her words as she tells me about her experience. She’s caught something that’s making a difference in her life and she wants to share it. I’m intrigued. Our conversation is long and I ask questions throughout.

“What’s the point of it all? How does it work? What do you have to do? What does it all mean? Why is the path to good stuff always seem to be through pain?”

She answers through her experience, says “I don’t know” several times, and discusses life, philosophy, religion and trees with me. As a follow up, she sends me the booklet Mindfulness in Plain English and the link to the Kaufman Center’s website (

I read through it all. According to the book and the site, the Vipassana technique teaches mindfulness, awareness, and gives one the ability to live a fuller and more vibrant life. I’m for that. It’s the way I’ve been trying to live my life the past few years. I don’t find anything in the information that freaks me out or makes me think Vipassana is some crazy cult religion. But at the same time it terrifies me. The course is ten days of intensive meditation during which meditators take a vow of noble silence (though at this point, sitting in front of my ironing board desk with the omnipresent sounds of Lima pounding into the room, the noble silence sounds like heaven), can’t communicate with the outside world, can’t communicate with other students and can’t take any reading or writing materials along. There is a strict code of discipline that lasts at least as long as the course. And there’s the frightening possibility that my life might be so changed that I’ll never be the same again.

Of course, that’s also the draw.

Change is scary.

Change is exhilarating.

Because the idea of this course terrifies me, I figure that means I should do it. So I send off an application to the Kaufman Center. A few days later I get an acceptance and I think with a modicum of alarm, “Now I’m really in for it. What in the heck have I just done?”

The course I sign up for is in June which works out perfectly since my Lima apartment lease is up at the end of June and I’m planning on heading back to the States then anyway before heading off to Europe for the summer. Because vegetarian food is served, Kaufman is less than an hour from where my folks live, and the course is free (made possible through donations from past students and the center being run by a full volunteer staff) I can afford to go.

Jesse is ecstatic when I tell her I’m in. “I’ll see if I can serve while you’re there!” she exclaims.

When I talk to my mom later in the week she says that my dad has signed up for the course too. My sister’s Vipassana talk up has infected the family. After I get off the phone with my mom, I email Jesse and my dad: “We're all gonna be ignoring each other at the Vipassana thing! I'm excited and slightly apprehensive. Like Jesse said, ‘the family that ignores each other stays together...’ or something like that.”

Jesse responds: “Dad is going too!? Yay! I'm still waiting to hear back if I've been accepted. Fingers crossed. The family that doesn't interact together stays together.”

And Dad says: “Mum's the word.”

We are all eventually officially accepted into the program and the day finally comes when we leave Dallas and drive east to Kaufman. As the miles spin away, my dad jokes about monks in saffron robes beating us with sticks or chasing us around the Center’s grounds if we break any of the rules or try to run away.

I have a moment of panic before I remember there was nothing about monks in the literature. I’m already eager to embrace silence. I’ve been activied and peopled out. I’m exhausted and stretched thin by noise. I want stillness and peace. But I’m wondering if I can survive without writing things down for ten entire days and if it’s too late to back out. Backing out isn’t in my nature. So I take out my notebook one last time and write:
Heading to Kaufman
to sit in silence
and learn
with Dad and Jesse

I have no idea what will happen over the next ten days. I don’t know if I’ll come out violently changed or mostly the same. I don’t know now, but I’m diving into this and am eagerly terrified to find out what’s on the other side of Vipassana.

“Catch you on the flip side world,” I think as we drive through the gates and leave civilization behind us. A trio of buzzards circle a neighboring property. “That’s an ominous sign,” Dad says with a twinkle in his eye.

I glance up and take a deep breath.

Here we go.

Catch you on the flip side.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Culture Shock

June 12, 2012 – Culture Shock

When my parents pick me up from the airport, the highway out is backed up to the tollbooths. Apparently someone thought it was a good idea to try and converge five lanes into one. Although it’s a merging nightmare, it seems so familiar a mess to me that I almost don’t realize it isn’t normal.

“What is going on?” Dad asks.

Mom doesn’t answer as she tries to figure out the “lanes.”

Cars weave before and behind each other with a civilized zip or acquiescence. The amazing part of it is that the entire time we inch our way to the onramp not one horn honks. Not a single one. Silence reigns golden on the street light lit streets. “This is the way it is in Lima all the time,” I say with only a bit of hyperbole. “Only with a lot more noise.”
I don’t hear a single honk the entire drive home. I’m dazed into a sort of post traumatic city stress syndrome.
The next day, my sister-in-law Marie, my niece Shea, and I walk to the AT&T store to get me set up with a temporary phone number. Not once, on any of the streets, do we get honked at, whispered to, whistled at or made kissy noises at. Not even when one year old Shea waves at the passing cars. Nor do we have to wend our way through masses of people. I don’t have to switch left to right on the sidewalk to avoid smacking into other pedestrians. I don’t find myself walking down the center line of the sidewalk (in truly Lima, Peruvian style) in order to have the best position to move from. This place is like a ghost town. We only pass one man and his son waiting for a bus during the entire walk. Texas thinking is that you have to be crazy to be out walking. It’s too hot. It’s too far. It’s too silly. But to me--with my feet as the only mode of transportation that I own--it’s just around the corner. We’re going a distance in a humidity level that is neither that far nor that oppressively heated.

After I get my business dealt with, we walk back home a different way. We pass a man near a bus stop. Out of habit, I avert my eyes and look at the ground. Marie says, “Good afternoon.”

With disorientation I remember where I am. I can talk to people without my words being misconstrued as a come-on. I can interact with male humans (maybe not all of them) without having to be ready to deflect their assumption that the conversation means I want to bear all their children and cook their dinners for the rest of my life. I can smile and say, “How’s it going?” if I want to. I square my shoulders and lift my chin. I’ve hated having to alter my friendliness in self-defense.
A weight flies off my shoulders and pops in the sweaty air.

A few nights later, I go with three of my siblings and Marie to a club in Deep Ellum to hear a band play. My high school friend (and the wife of the guitar player) Christie had texted me earlier to tell me about the concert and to say she’d love for me to come out. I rope the family into the mix and we go to see the boys we grew up around perform.

There’s a guy selling hotdogs from a metal pushcart on the corner of Elm Street. “Hotdogs!” he calls out as we walk by. I give him a smile and keep myself from saying, “Street food. South American and the United States aren’t so different.”

Christie is just getting out of her car when my sibs and I come up to Club Dada’s front door. I go over to talk with her. She’s brought her sister who I haven’t seen in years. We cluster by the parking meters and catch up some. Marie comes over too. The boys form their own clot a few yards away. The first band has gone on and the riffs spill out through the open door as people pay the cover and go in. 

“Excuse me, ladies,” a voice says, interrupting one of us midsentence. A scraggly looking guy scoots closer and holds out a cup. “Could any of you spare some change?”

“I just had to beg change off my husband to fill the meter,” Christie says.

None of us have any change to give.

“Sorry,” we say.

I look around, taking the street in. Begging and street vendors? I think, The world isn’t so different
even under different flags.

Once inside the club, we head to the back patio, out of the full range of the blaring first band’s music.

“You want some water?” my sister Jesse asks.

“Yeah, that’d be great. Does it cost?” I reach for my wallet. I’ve already had several panic attacks about cost differences since being back, mostly in the airport where price comparisons aren’t accurate anyway, but still the dollar seems to disappear with less to show for it than a sol.

Jesse drawing in Deep Ellum
Jesse looks at me a little crazy and shakes her head. Free water. Drinkable water. Oh yeah.

There are a lot of people here that I’ve known all their lives and a few who’ve known me all mine. At no time during the night does anyone that I don’t know approach me. No one comes to ask me to dance (mainly because these bands don’t play dance music). No one whistles at me to come talk to them by the bar. I feel like an island all to myself. I suddenly realize, here in this sea of people, I’m no one to stand out. I’m just another white girl in the midst of others. I don’t turn heads. Little kids don’t stare at me like I’m an anomaly. The more fashionable, the taller, the more beautiful shine me out. I can stand in plain view out of sight like a wall flower. I don’t mind this. It’s like settling back into the way things should be.

The minutes click by. We’ve left Shea with my mom and midnight has chimed turning us all into pumpkins. As we head back to the car two Mexican guys pass by me. Their sing-song words register in my head and I eavesdrop without meaning to. Their speech hits me with a familiar melody, different from Peru Spanish, but not so far off. I find a comfort in understanding them, and an even greater comfort in being able to talk in my native tongue without feeling guilty about it.

At the house, I go brush my teeth with tap water. Nowhere in the bathroom is there a sign that says Do not flush the paper so I flush away. It’s these simple things that are so easily taken for granted that mean the most, that seem so extravagant, that pull me to compare and contrast.

I haven’t settled down enough from my travel and the bustle of being with my family to know what things I’ll miss from Peru. But the silence of this world is a salve to my noise-wounded soul. The only sound I hear now is the soft ticking of the clock in my mom’s study where I’m sleeping. No car alarms, no sirens, no screaming kids, no yelling neighbors, no blaring music, no slamming doors. As I start to fall asleep I tell myself, “Welcome back to the United States of America.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Cuidate and Chau

June 6, 2012 – Wrapping Up for Now

“Have you accomplished what you wanted while being here?” Fiorella asks me. We’re drinking tea at La Bodega Verde in Barranco, catching up face-to-face a final time before I leave. I’ve got my hands folded around my cup. The wispy scent of rooibos drifts upward and dissipates away. I meet her glance and smile. This question is easy to answer.

“Yes,” I say. In the goal oriented sense of achieving – absolutely yes. My goal was to edit my book and have it presentable enough to send off to agents. I did finish it. I basically rewrote the entire thing, changed the premise of the story and the title, cleaned it up and added emotional and plot depth. To date, I’ve sent queries to twenty-six agents, received negative responses from half of those and am still waiting for the rest.

Outside of goal-orientation, the answer is also yes. I hadn’t wanted to waste my life doing something I hated. I wanted to live. To travel. To write. And write. And write.

“Did you ever imagine you’d stay this long when you first came?” Walter asks me. He and his friend Gregory had picked me up in Miraflores in front of the Haiti and taken me to La Rosa Naútica. “You can’t leave Peru without eating at the Rosa Naútica at least once, can you?” he’d asked me on the phone when I’d called to tell him I was leaving town.

“I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” I say. I’d had a graspable dream of staying. Of going somewhere. Of doing something. I’d set a three month trial time just to give me a way out if I needed it, and hadn’t had to. I had hoped I’d find a way to fly free from the drudgery I was in. I found it and I don’t ever want to give this freedom up. At La Rosa Naútica I listen to Walter rant about money and politics and the end of the world. They’re the same rants as usual only the current events have changed. His friend Gregory tries to tell me his life story between Walter’s interruptions.

“The first time I came to Peru was in 1996, no, ’97,” Gregory says.

“Let me introduce you to Gregory,” Walter cuts in. “Simplicity, innocence with money and the personality of a bulldog.”

“What happens next?” Gregory asks himself, trying to realign the story-car on the track of his mind.

I sip my wine, eat a salad, take pictures, jot notes and think my own thoughts while the men ceaselessly talk. They’re both vying for my attention and each other’s. It’s an extravagant outing that later Gregory pays for from a thick wad of cash that would probably fund me for several months. He’s worked for the money and for him this is just an afternoon jaunt. 

“And I walked into the 99 cent store,” Gregory says. He’d met Norma there. She was Peruvian and didn’t speak a word of English, working at the store to try and provide for herself and her family. Gregory went back there a lot to shop. They’d had a long term relationship which led him to visit Peru and then buy an apartment that he spends a few months of the year in. I never got to hear how his relationship with Norma was concluded. We didn’t make it that far into his history.

After the plates are cleared away and the wine levels inched up, I check my phone for the time. I have to teach at 7:30.

“What are you doing?” Walter asks.

“Just checking the time,” I tell him.

He gives me a doubting look. He gets louder and more abrasive as he drinks. I know this. I’ve seen it plenty of times before. I’m trying to calculate what time I’d need to leave the restaurant if I was to walk to my stop and take the bus home. I’m not looking to have another harrowing drive with Walter.

Gregory tells me about Norma’s daughter who’d been told she was Norma’s sister and daughter of Norma’s mom for a reason I’ve forgotten. He tells me about the son Norma left behind her in Peru to keep her father from finding out she’d had another child. He tells me about the wicked and depraved uncle who’d abused Norma’s daughter. “It’s all true,” Gregory tells me. “And this isn’t even the half of it.”

“Jeez,” I say.

Walter jumps in to talk about the dead dolphins and seabirds being found on Peruvian shores. “Are you going to tell me that the anchovies have moved because of the current and that the dolphins can’t dive a little deeper? That the fish can’t go north just a little to find their food? What’s really going on?”

I’m waiting for his conspiracy theory. 

Behind us a flock of seabirds dive beak first into the ocean to fish. “Walter!” Gregory says, “Look there. Are you going to tell me that there are no fish? The birds seem to have plenty to eat.”

I let them have their theories, have a silent moment for the dead dolphins, fish and birds, and check my phone again.

“What are you doing? Are you talking with some boy?” Walter demands.

“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. He’ll think the worst anyways, encouraging that might be more fun.

He gives me a new look that means, “I knew it.” At least he hasn’t asked me point blank about my sex life. Not yet. It’s still early in the day.

A bit later, we get up to go.

“I still want to know what you’d do if I grabbed at you,” Walter says. He takes ahold of my wrist to test his words. He’s got this idea that my black belt in Judo means I’m some kind of ninja. I’ve never tried to dispel this belief. I don’t try to now either. I turn and lightly free my hand with a soft twist.

“Well, I’m getting a real hug from you before you go, a real hug,” Walter says, leading the way out to the parking lot.

He drives me up towards the ovalo of Miraflores where I can catch a bus.

“You can drop me off here,” I tell him. We’re stuck in traffic at a light. “I can walk from here.”

He gets out of the car in the middle of the road, and I give him his hug.

“Chau.” I wave through the window at Gregory. “Nice to meet you. Thanks for the lunch. I’ll have to get the rest of the story some other time.”

And that’s how life is; half told stories, some finished, some never completed, some only intersected at points, chapters, sagas, novellas, shorts, bits of unconnected interactions that play into some strange overall theme.

“What other work would you want to do?” Fiorella asks.

“Besides write?”


“Nothing.” But I try and think of something else. They’re ideas I’ve ruled out before. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

She and I cheek kiss at my bus stop.

“Chau,” I say.

“Buena suerte!” she calls as she crosses the street to go her own way.

I go home. My possessions are half packed. I’ve got a list of things to remember to do and take. As my llama and I prepare to catch a flight back to the States and then a boat to Europe I think of the time I’ve spent here. The things I’ve shared, the stories I’ve kept to myself, of the ending of my Nazca trip, of the eventful and fun weekend I spent with Stefan – a coworker of my dad’s – who I showed around town my second to last weekend in Lima. Of the drinking and dancing and site-seeing we did. I’ve got stories yet to tell.

I look out the window at the busy street I see from my ironing board desk. Lima may not be my favorite place, but it’s familiar.

And in a way, it’s comfortable in that familiarity. The circles of goodbyes I make are like Venn diagrams bringing me into one big closed curve that reads Peru. How to sum up a year? How to bid farewell to good people and interesting places? How to succinctly mark the changes I’ve experienced or the things I’ve learned?

I don’t know that I can.

I’m turning a page of this book of my life, seeing the end of a chapter.
I’m eager to turn the page, yet bittersweet in the doing of it. So instead of goodbye, even instead of see you later, I’d rather just say to all I’m leaving behind for now, “Cuidate, chau.”

Monday, June 4, 2012

For the Thrill of the Ride - a poem

June 4, 2012 – For the Thrill of the Ride

The grains roll across each other into mountains of sand
Grand, endless,
Innumerable as the stars in the sky.
We ride them like the waves of the sea.
A dropping of the stomach
An intake of breath
Speed that zings gnat bites of sand against my face
That blows cooling desert air to goose bump my arms
That snatches laughter from my soul and sends it out across the darkening world.

Muses sought after and seldom found, captured, or known
Take me as theirs.
And I ride in their arms,

Watch the sun set behind the dunes that I’ve never known
I loved so much
Watch the sun set down behind the dunes
and think this
is one of the most perfect moments of my life.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch

June 3, 2012 – Meanwhile Back at the Ranch

I go sit out by the pool, turning the chair to face south. To the right, my old starry friend Orion tracks his way downward into the welcoming western horizon. I search the sky for any other familiar constellations and planets. The Southern Cross is easy for me to spot now. The brilliant star off to the west is most likely Venus. The red tinted dot above me might be Mars. There’s a snakelike line that I decide must be Scorpio or Draco. I don’t really know. I wish I’d brought my star chart. I make up my own myth stories and as a reward I see a shooting star. After a while Rodney comes out to join me. He brings two glasses and a bottle of wine. Under the perfect expanse of night we talk about stars, myths, writing, words, bones, death, life, travel and Woodstock.

“I went to Woodstock,” Rodney says.

“You did?!” I exclaim. “My dad would be so jealous.”

“I went by accident. My friend and I were driving across country and we picked up this kid who was hitchhiking. He was heading to Woodstock. That was the first we’d heard of it and since we didn’t really have anything specific we were doing we took him all the way and then stayed.”

“And how was it?”

“I don’t remember. I woke up to find three days had passed. I had most of my clothes and not much to remember. I went and found my friend and we left.”

“Wow.” I crank my head back a little more and trace the Southern Cross’s path, using a tree to mark how far it’s gone. I’ve missed the stars. Lima’s sky is seldom clear and I’ve had few chances to admire the heavens. A flutter of homesickness passes over me like a butterfly; I’m ready to cross hemispheres and see all the star shapes I know and love. Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Orion in his proper place, The Big Dipper, The Little Dipper, Polaris, The Pleiades. But I wish I could take the Southern Cross back with me.

The air chills and our wine is gone. I bid the remaining stars goodnight and call it a day.

In the morning, Vito comes to collect us again. We drive into Nazca to a tiny hostel and pick up Markus. He’s young, hatted, and speaks English better than I do. He’s been exploring South America, teaching English to get by and visiting archeological sites, before going back home to Nuremburg, Germany and college. I bite my tongue to keep from asking him if he’s single or how old he is. Oh god, South American habits are rubbing off on me. I don’t tell him the only German I (probably incorrectly) know is, “You are a silly goose.” I am a silly goose.

Vito drives us down the Pan American Highway and pulls over into a dirt parking area leading up to a gravelly hill.
“Come here,” he says. He motions us all together and points at the mountain across the highway from us. “You can the line from here all the way to the mountain? The Nazca people made this line to point to the water source. You see how straight it is?”

It’s incredibly straight.

“The Nazca people just moved the small rocks off the surface of the ground with their hands to make these lines. They’re a little different from the other forms which were made a little deeper. The Nazca people set up sticks every thirty meters and that way were able to make these perfectly straight lines.”

All across the ground, from where I stand to the mountains on the distant horizon, there are intersecting lines. Some form into geometric shapes, some mark their own unwavering paths, others make figures. They’re strange, beautiful, bewildering.

“Amanda,” Vito calls out at me, “Come here.” I comply and he positions me to see the Line that stretches from my feet to disappear off to the west. “This line was a marker for the Winter Solstice. On that day the sun sets directly in line with this marking line.”

I have a sudden wish to be here on this spot on June 20th when the Winter Solstice occurs. But I won’t be. I’ll be far away. Turning thirty-four years old in the Northern Hemisphere on the longest day of the year instead of the shortest.

I’ve lagged behind, as usual, and I scramble after the others to the top of the lookout. Crisscrossing lines cover the land. I love this desert with all my heart.

We don’t stay forever. Vito packs us back into the car and drives us off to the Mirador (the lookout tower). He parks us across the way and we wait for a safe moment before darting across the highway. We pay two soles each and get a ticket stub that allows us to climb the rickety, metal steps to the top of the tower. The construction of the tower was sponsored by German born archeologist Maria Reiche who helped bring the importance of the lines to the attention of the Peruvian government and the world. After one of the figures, the Lizard, was cut in two by the Pan American highway Reiche was quick to raise money and support and hired guards to keep the other figures from being destroyed. I stop at each landing to gaze at the Hands and the Tree.
I’d seen them from the air, but this close, they’re just as amazing as I’d imagined, as I’d seen them to be.

Here, different from the lines marking celestial happenings or water sources or ceremonial sites, the figures are etched deeper into the ground. The gravelly stones have been removed like they’d been for those other lines, but then the Nazca people used other instruments besides their hands to imprint these figures even further into the dirt. Vito tells us how the unique weather of the desert creates just the right environment to preserve these lines. In the morning a sly dew covers the ground, moistening things just enough so that when the early afternoon winds brush over the land, the dirt is wet and weighty so as not to be blown away. When the hot sun bakes the ground hard, this also works as part of the magic.

I look out. I look up. I bet the stars would be even more brilliant from out here.

I’m the last one down from the tower. 

With our lives in our hands, we bustle back across the Highway and tuck ourselves into the car. Our last stop is the Maria Reiche museum.

Formerly Reiche’s home and research base, the place has been converted into a beautiful museum that showcases her life and work and serves as a tribute to her love of Peru and its wonders. I wander around taking pictures of the flowers and the VW van she used to get around.
When Rodney, Markus and I have had our museum fill, Vito takes us back home.

We thank him, pay him and bid him farewell. “Adios, amigo.”
Back at The Oasis, Rodney and I have just enough time to get our things together and take a taxi to the Cruz del Sur bus station.
The time comes to board and I settle into my seat and prepare for the three hour trip to Ica.

I lean my head against the window and whisper: Goodbye desert. Goodbye Lines. Goodbye mystery. Goodbye Nazca.