Tag Archives: Mindfulness

Chuzenjiko

The next morning I sat down to another breakfast of Texas toast, fruit, and soft-boiled egg.  But then the hostess approached me and said gingerly, “This is not your breakfast.  You did not pay for it.”

“Oops!” I said.  “I thought I pre-paid for all three mornings?” But I had not, and with some relief (because I don’t really like soft-boiled eggs or Texas toast) I got up from the untouched meal which was meant for another guest and happily ate a Cup-o-Noodles before leaving on my day trip.

Lake Chuzenji is about a half hour from Nikko via steep winding mountain roads.  The bus stop was easy to find, and the bus fare system was brilliant.  I haven’t seen anything like it elsewhere. You take a ticket with a number on it when you board.  Then, a screen at the front tells you how much you’ll owe when you alight, refreshing at each stop.  Some guides had made it sound like it would be possible to walk to the lake, but that would have taken a couple hours, all uphill, with almost no space between passing vehicles and a sheer drop on one side or cliffs on the other.  The ride cost about $10.

At the station, signs pointed to Kegon Waterfall, so I dutifully walked over to have a look.

I searched for a way to get to the lake, but there were no signs except these:

Thankfully I never saw any attack monkeys.

I walked this way for 10 minutes, then that way, then another.  I finally returned to the station and consulted a map.  The lake was in the fourth direction I hadn’t yet tried, and it was an easy five minute, downhill stroll.  This is the lake.  It is spectacular.

“This reminds me of Wolfgangsee,” I thought.  Lake Wolfgang is in the Austrian Alps, where I had visited two years earlier. There was even Lupin about; probably the climate and soil in the two places are similar.

I guess it is human nature to compare things to other things, but I tried to put thoughts of comparison out of my mind and enjoy where I was right then.

Lake Chuzenji is a resort area, deserted on the day I was there.  Number one travel tip: research when the school holidays are in your destination country, and avoid those times.  Unless you like heaving crowds, long lines, and paying double for everything. This was the empty shelter where crowds would queue for boat rides during the high season.

The duck boats were very picturesque.

I was hungry and wanted to buy trout on a stick but the vendor had no change for my 5000 yen note.  I settled for a hot potato croquette filled with yuba, which was super tasty.

I walked along the edge of the lake for half an hour and “discovered” a Shinto shrine which turned out to be one of three called Futarasan in the Nikko area.  There were piles of little clay plates which visitors had smashed in a ravine. There was nothing about it in English. I didn’t smash any so I may have missed my big chance at …something.

It was 212 steps to the shrine.

I spent a quiet half hour with this guy and his deer (?) at the top.  I don’t know who he was.

This was the simple shrine nearby.

I sat on a bench; there were no other visitors.  Butterflies fluttered by and birds whistled up a storm.  I found myself resisting urges to “do” something—eat a snack, write some notes, keep climbing.  After 20 minutes I walked back down, where I noticed this lovely lion.

Here’s the view back toward the mountain where the shrine sat.

This was parked in the lot.  I would love to rent one.

I was hungry again—can’t imagine why—so I was happy to spy restaurant curtains through the glass doors of a little mall.

The place had Japanese and western style tables.

It was just me and a group of Japanese ladies who lunch.  This was my view.

I had a big bowl of ramen and a beer.  What a beautiful day, and it wasn’t over yet.

My Name is Anne, and I’m Anxious

I need to write an honest post about anxiety.

I could tell myself it’s not logical to be anxious.  I should be grateful, even.

I don’t have to commute or work full time. I haven’t touched my savings since quitting my full-time job in December.  I’m healthy enough that I feel safe forgoing health insurance—which would cost me over $800 a month for a lousy plan—and instead use a healthcare sharing program, which costs $220 a month.  I enjoy my contract work with my former employer, working on million dollar proposals to the UN and US government.  I enjoy my very-part-time job at the YMCA minding little kids.  It’s summer, and I’ve got free time to go berry foraging or biking the wild paths along the Mississippi.  I live in a charming and affordable duplex.

Vince, who less than three years ago emerged from prison with nothing, owns a home, is a dad, and is getting married in 10 days.

Yeah, I know I have it good.

Then why do I get ice-cold stabbing pangs of fear in my solar plexus?  It’s not every day, or all day, but it can last for hours and it’s extremely unpleasant.

I think it is thanks to my nemeses, the what ifs.

My financial future is uncertain.  What if my contract isn’t renewed next year?  Should I get another full-time job?  What if no one wants to hire a 59 year old?  I recently read that the average job hunt for someone my age is 12 months. Maybe I should have started looking months ago!

Could I try to live off my savings?  It’s not my regular monthly expenses that are a problem; they’re very modest.  There are always things like new tires ($$), a new phone ($$), and a crown on my molar ($$$$). What if my engine gasket blows, or I need two crowns next month?

I have a plane ticket to Panama for December but haven’t booked accommodations.  What if Panama turns out to be super expensive?

Those are the semi-rational what ifs.

If I allow it free reign, my mind conjures up additional scary possibilities that are unlikely to ever happen.

I saw a sign warning of coyotes at the river today.  What if I was attacked by one on my walk and couldn’t work?  I would lose everything and end up one of those homeless people on the freeway exit holding a sign that says, “Sick.  Can’t work.  Anything helps.  God Bless.”

I swore at another driver on my way home from the river as we both fought our way through a traffic jam. What if I lost it, rammed someone with my car, and ended up in prison?  How humiliating would that be?

Images of these things happening actually flash through my mind.  Usually I am barely aware of them, and I can laugh them off.  But they probably contribute to the anxiety

And those are just the neurotic thoughts about me and mine.  I despair that my country can put a man on the moon, find a cure for Hepatitis C, and produce all sorts of genius inventors and entertainers and artists but we cannot come up with a single solution to gun violence.  One of my neighbors was killed in a mass shooting in 2012.  Will I, or someone I care about, be next?

Then there’s climate change.  Contrary to what millennials seem to believe, not all of us baby boomers have been callously disregarding the environment all our lives.  My first environmental protest was in 1974.  We were calling on the government to clean up the Mississippi River.  And it got done.  But as I sit in my car writing this—at the river, on the latest of a series of unusually hot days—I fear we are all doomed.

When I travel I do feel nervous about finding train stations and such. But mostly I am in the moment every moment and my anxiety is fleeting and mild.

I’m went to the Mississippi today to hike uneven terrain, to throw myself off kilter so I would have to focus on each step or I’d pitch headlong into the dark, swift current.

There I go again!

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

Suspended

Last summer I took swimming lessons in hopes of feeling confident enough to get scuba certified, but observing the dive instructors on the ship, I knew it would have been too much for me.

The ship was a “speed catamaran” with “state-of-the-art computerized ride control systems.”  This meant we got out to the reef faster, with less choppiness, and for that I was grateful.  It still took an hour to reach the reef, and one hour of seasickness would have felt like eternity.

The dive instructors had convened the tourists who would scuba in the front of the ship.  Most of them weren’t certified—they would get one hour of instruction and dive with the instructors.

As I watched, I recalled my mother exhorting me, 50 years ago, to finish my food with her mantra, “Think of all the starving people in China.”

They aren’t starving anymore.  All the divers were young Chinese.  The base tour wasn’t cheap—$176 US—and they would pay extra for each dive.

The instructors were hunky, sun-browned he-men.  They demonstrated scuba hand signals, “This means low on air,” said one as he held his fist to his chest, “and this means out of air,” as he slashed his hand across his throat.

No thanks.

Suddenly a crew member yelled, “Dolphins!” and everyone rushed to look.  Dolphins indeed!  There were a dozen cavorting in our wake, and when a crew member went out on a wave runner they jumped for joy around him. It was absolutely delightful.

Everyone around me was taking photos and video but I desisted.  There was no internet out here, and I had decided to leave my phone wrapped in a plastic bag with a small amount of cash and my Minnesota driver’s license. For all I knew my passport had been stolen.  Maybe Aussies weren’t as honest as I’d thought.  Would someone pay $176 to spend the day on a ship and pickpocket their fellow passengers?  Probably not, but I wasn’t going to leave my phone in the open.

I took two photos of the sea all day, at our first stop. Then I decided to just enjoy and not try to capture it.

We snorkeled and dived for an hour at a site called Stonehenge, where rock formations jutted from the ocean.  I understand the naming system, but Stonehenge is part of Agincourt Reef 3.  The ship stopped at three sites out of 35 in the vicinity, depending on weather conditions.

The fish were astounding.  There were angel fish with yellow, blue, and white vertical stripes and yellow tails and beaks.  Whatever kind of fish Nemo the cartoon is, it was there.

I glanced down and make a muffled exclamation into my mask, “Giant clam!” My dad had played Giant Clam with us when we were little—sitting akimbo on the floor and pretending to eat us—the little fish.  Giant clams really are giant—maybe four feet across.

When I am fortunate enough to be in an environment like this, I feel a peace and oneness with everything.  I don’t believe in god but I do believe in heaven-like places and states of mind, and this was one.

The horn sounded and we exited the water for lunch.  There was an enormous buffet with fresh seafood, fruits and veg, and healthy hearty salads.

As I ate, three women in the adjacent booth invited me to join them.  They were Lebanese-Australians from Melbourne.  They appeared to be my age but they all rocked bikinis. Was it their Lebanese skin they should thank for their faces being without a wrinkle?  They were well-educated, smart and funny world travelers who were very kind to invite me to join them.

After lunch we stopped at Barracuda Bommie.  A bommie is an underwater tower.  I floated face down, mesmerized as I watched thousands of barracudas swirl around the bommie—down, down, down into the darkness until I couldn’t see anymore.

Why do scenes like this bring on such a feeling of peace, at least for me?  Perhaps because it’s so humbling.  I realize how vulnerable I am, and how insignificant.

At our last stop—Blue Wonder—the sea began to swell and I hit a wall of exhaustion and nausea.

Seeing, Really Seeing

Am I a bad, shallow person to enjoy places like Liberty so thoroughly?  Only the one percent can actually buy anything there, right?  True, although I did buy some nail varnish, as they call nail polish in Britain.  It cost £12 ($15)—the most expensive nail polish I’ve ever bought—but I love the color and it reminds me of my day there.

But no regular person can actually afford to buy a pair of pants at Harrods.  Isn’t that wrong?  Isn’t it criminal that people spend £1,500 on baby carriages made by Maserati?  Or £2,000 for jeweled clutch purses, or £200 for a canvas tote bag because it has the Liberty look and label?

Isn’t it outrageous that people spend £95 for a small plate with a Liberty design on it, when they won’t give £5 to the homeless person sitting on the pavement outside the store?

Yes, it is outrageous.  And I’m glad there are people designing, making, selling, and buying beautiful things in this world.

Maybe, if the contents of all the high-end department stores were liquidated and the proceeds given to homeless people, those folks would get new clothes, get jobs, find apartments, fall in love, and live happily ever after.

Nah.

Some would, some wouldn’t. Some might use the money to start a small business, and build it into a business empire … like Harrods.  Some have such intractable problems that no amount of money or social service intervention can solve them.  Some poor people would be offended by the offer of cash and continue on their own path of working their way up.

No, it’s much more complicated. I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations almost my whole career and I know that rich people and businesses can be part of the solution.

I just searched the Liberty website for the terms “donations,” “charity,” “corporate social responsibility,” and “philanthropy” and came up empty handed.  It would be nice to think that they hired ex offenders or donated unsold shoes to charity auctions.

I would be happy to help them start a corporate philanthropy program if they would just allow me to work from that green velvet sofa.

For better or worse, I have an “eye” for color, composition, and all things beautiful, whether they’re manmade or natural.  You may be thinking, “Well everyone loves beautiful things!” but you would be wrong.  I have friends who have nothing on their walls.  Nothing.  No art, not even Art-in-a-Box from Target.

They come to my house, look around, and say, “Wow, you have so much stuff on your walls.  Interesting.”  As if it has never occurred to them that they could do the same, much less surround themselves with beautiful, interesting, uplifting objects.

I have been told that I notice things, in general.  The other day, I was in an old-timey grocery store in St. Paul and said to my friend, “Hey!  When was the last time you saw a grocery store with a ‘Grits’ aisle?”

She laughed and said, “You always notice things like that.”

Doesn’t everyone?  I guess not.

I asked my landlady, “What are those tracks?”

“What tracks?”

“The ones there—that look like a snake made them,” I pointed.

“Oh, those.  I’ve never noticed them.  Maybe a mouse?”

I am in a hyper-state of noticing when I’m traveling.  It was good to know I could see things—delightful, humorous things—right at home.  This new year, I’m going to try to pull it in even closer, and notice things in my house that I use or pass by—sightless—every day.

Back at Fortnum and Mason, Heidi and I worked our way slowly through the food hall.

I bought a box of Earl Grey tea for Lynn and a box of English Breakfast for myself.  I didn’t buy these exact containers but you get the idea of the packaging.

Yes, they cost more than a canister of PG Tips at Tesco.  They may not have been grown in a socially-responsibly, environmentally-sustainable manner.  But so what?  They’re beautiful, and six months later I am still dipping into my stash and enjoying the tea and the memory.

Suspended

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

We sat in the sand under a shade tree enjoying our lunch break before more snorkeling.

Here’s something I never knew about snorkeling: it is very dehydrating.  There are lots of articles about it; it’s something about the lack of gravity when you’re in the water, apparently.  Whatever the case, the public toilet on the island was half a mile off, so we all started pretending we couldn’t get enough of the water, wading in and saying things like, “Ooh, I just can’t stay away from of this beautiful water!”  What else could we do?

Emily and I had become pals.  We had both lived and worked or gone to school in other countries. We lived in the same neighborhood now.  And we had both been observing the martyrdom, endless list of food restrictions, and other “interesting” behavior of our fellow tour members.

“Do you have any gluten-free options?” asked Joan as the pulled-pork sandwiches were being handed out.  Lincoln, our boat captain, smiled and shook his head no.  Joan sat back in the shade, her arm still in a makeshift sling from her fall the first day.  She didn’t say, “I’ll just go hungry then,” but she didn’t need to; it was all in her body language.  Neither she nor Liz had gone in the water. This wasn’t surprising about Joan, who was stick-thin and sickly looking and had fibromyalgia.  But Liz was in good shape.

“Ah just didn’t feel lahk it,” she drawled.  If she was hoping we would ask her to explain why, she was disappointed.

The rest of us really couldn’t wait to get back in. As we were putt-putting out to the reef area, I spoke with Vanessa, our guide.

Vanessa had finished two years of college to become an English teacher.  Then she got this summer job as a snorkeling guide and she never went back.  I can’t say I blame her.  When she said she missed writing, I suggested she could write a blog about snorkeling and she liked that idea.  I hope she does it.

We approached a boat where fishermen were cleaning their catch of conches and throwing the leftover scraps into the sea.

We jumped in, and almost immediately I said into my mask, “That looks like a turtle!” only it sounded like, “Flaploogglaga blurpple!”

And it was a turtle, an old Loggerhead about five feet from snout to tail.  This is not “our” turtle but it’ll give you an idea of what she looked like.

She reminded me of my son’s ancient dinosaur-like dog, Willie, without the purple bandana.

Then there were the rays—Eagle rays and Spotted Rays—also as long as I was tall, also prehistoric looking, also a photo stolen off the web.

I wish I could say I took these photos, but as you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I take terrible photos above water, never mind below water.

But other people in my group had Go-Pros and water proof cameras.

Here I am, looking like a scene out of Jaws:

Lincoln and Vanessa kept calling out, “Over here!  There’s a lobster / Garfish / Lionfish / Clownfish!  Everyone would swim after them to have a look.  Everyone but me. I reached an area where the sea floor must have been 30 feet below me but the water was so clear it felt like I was suspended in air.  Suddenly I felt panic that I would plummet to the bottom.  That passed and I just floated meditatively.  Doing nothing, going nowhere.  No To-Do list.  I caught myself thinking, “I can’t wait to do this again!” then laughed at myself and focused on the fact that I was there, in heaven, right now.

The meditative mood stayed with me for the rest of the evening.  Walking back to Jeanie’s, we were passed by a teenage boy on a tuk tuk—a motor scooter—with a fat baby balanced on the handle bars.  The baby was laughing with delight as the scooter bucked up and down over the potholes.  I vowed to be more like a baby—unafraid, in the moment, joyful.

Wherever You Go, There’s a Screen

“How was your trip?”

What was the highlight of your trip?”

“What were the top three things about your trip?”

These are questions I always get when I get home from a big one.  The first one is so broad that all I just say, “It was great.” If the asker is genuinely interested in knowing more, he or she will ask more questions.

The other two are meant, I think, to keep the returned traveler hemmed in so he/she doesn’t go on and on.  I don’t blame the asker; not everyone has time or interest in hearing details about someone else’s trip, but when you see someone at work who’s been gone for a month you have to ask them something, if for no other reason than to be courteous.  Personally, I love hearing about other people’s trips, as long as they’re not cornering me on the way to a meeting or shoving their cell phone in my face to show me videos of their roller coaster ride at Disney World.

When people ask for the “top three” they are probably expecting me to say:

  • The Coliseum
  • The Amalfi Coast
  • The Alhambra

Or some such check list of tangible things.  But the highlight of this trip was that I was in the moment.  I wasn’t planning ahead or analyzing what I should have done differently.  I didn’t have To-Do lists, coupons or business cards or post-it notes with reminders to myself stuffed into every pocket.  There are no piles of things by the door ready to return to a store, or library books to return, or bags of plastic bags to take to the recycling center.  I pretty much wore the same two outfits for three weeks so I didn’t have to decide what to wear.  There were no cleaning or DIY projects, unless you count hand washing my socks and underwear—a meditative activity in itself.  I only woke up once with an alarm clock

I hadn’t set out to be mindful, and now I wonder if this is one of the things I’ve loved about travel all along but was never aware of.

I was traveling alone for the first 10 days so I had to really pay attention to, for example, what time the train left.  I had to be aware of my surroundings for safety’s sake.  I needed to remember to ask the hotel front desk to print my boarding pass when I had a flight the next day.  So there were things I had to attend to, but this reinforced being in the moment, I was nothing like the Human Doing I am at home.

Being in the moment doesn’t mean you’re never irritated.

Am I the only one who doesn’t love the screens embedded in airplane seat backs?  They’re great for watching movies.  But they are set to be on, all the time, unless you turn them off.

On night flights, my routine is to gulp down a glass of wine, choke down the “food” Delta calls dinner, then don my ear plugs and sleep mask and try to get a few hours of sleep so that when I arrive I can tell myself I had a good night’s sleep—when I really only had four fitful hours.  (I also bring a full-size down pillow on night flights.  It makes a huge difference; you can use it to pad the wall or the arm rest, or smoosh it up and hunch forward over it.  It’s not counted as a carry on item.)

I woke up at some point during the flight and staggered down the aisle to the toilet.  Delta requires people to lower their window shades and turns off the cabin lights.  But 90% of the screens were on—hundreds of “Delta” logos glowing white and red.  People were sound asleep with these screens a foot from their faces.

Back in my seat, I looked at the guy across the aisle and one row in front of me.  His screen was on, his wife was asleep but her screen was on, and he was playing solitaire on his phone.  And we wonder why it’s so hard to sleep on planes.