27 November 2007

Meditating on love

One more wat story before we leave Thailand behind. On our second morning there, Aeh and I got up to go to the morning chanting. I had heard the gong and the chanting on the first day, but I was nervous about climbing out of my sleeping bag and stumbling through the dark to the chapel. I set my alarm for 3:50, afraid I’d sleep through the gong. No worries, though (I don’t sleep particularly hard on the floor) after the gong. It wasn’t until after I brushed my teeth (with bottled water) and washed my face with icy tap water that I looked at my watch. 3 am, not 4. This was the first wake-up bell, a fact that had escaped me in the half sleep of the night before. But I was up, so I sat in the dark hut and listened to the chickens and meditated. The scampering of creatures on the ceiling was not wholly conducive to deep contemplation, nor was the memory of the enormous spiders in the bathroom (I don’t think spiders should be so big that you can actually hear them walk across a floor). Still, I managed to sit there in semi-deep contemplation, only occasionally pausing to see whether the several spread toes of a hidden creature were still nestled in the crack above my door (we each kept our end of the bargain, though—the creature didn’t climb into my hair and I didn’t sweep at it with the brush broom and the next night it was gone).

The gong rang again at nearly 4, and I rushed out of my room, flashlight bobbing in the black night. There were seven monks and five of us chanters (well, four of the chanters and me, a listener). The deep voices of the monks and the higher voices of the women merged into some ancient harmony with the roosters to call out a random rhythm. When the chanting was done, the head monk, the guru of the place, talked about the practice of meditation and how we all needed to focus on our practice and be mindful all the time about all things. This seemed like a high standard, but who was I to mention it. At the end of the talk, he called over to Aeh and me (I stand out in this country, and in a crowd of five, I’m irresistible). He spoke in gentle Thai, which Aeh translated in my ear. He wanted to know why I was there, how I was finding the place. He wanted me to be sure to keep meditating when I got home and told me about why that was so vital. He wanted me to know that he’d been to the US to teach about meditation many years ago. And, finally, he said something like: “You have a home in America, you have a home in New Zealand, and now you have a home in Thailand. This is your home now, and we will welcome you back whenever you come back and you can always stay as long as you like. You now have a home at every wat all over the world.” And he smiled at me with great vitality and warmth and then he told us that he was sick and he was going to the doctor and maybe he would die soon. He seemed untroubled by this, and laughed at his stiffness as he stood up to go.

The sincerity of his offer—and the truth of it, since you can go to a wat and stay as long as you like—carried me home along the dark path. I went back to my hut, filled with images of home in expanded rings around the world. I meditated in the dark quiet (after first checking to see that my many-toed friend was still in his crack). I began to feel that the air around me was viscous and electric, that it was charged full of love and that I was breathing in and out the love in the air. I thought about my family and friends, about each of you reading this blog, about Aeh and Gig, about my hutmate, about everyone whose life touches mine. I felt tears running down my face as I breathed in the simple and clear truth that the only thing that counts is love, the only reason to live is love, and our only job on this planet is to love one another well. At 7 am, I walked slowly to another breakfast the nuns had prepared for me and watched the lotus flowers bloom with the first touch of the sun.

I didn’t have an experience of that meditative space again. The monk had also given me other directions for my meditation which, when followed, made me alternately frustrated and intensely bored. Sometimes simultaneously. But I made many slow and mindful walks across the old wooden bridge, and I followed my breath on a pier over the lotus flowers. And I made a beginning, and felt it charged with love. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Pictures today: Walking meditation path through the forest; village women preparing breakfast for the monks; ever present roosters on the path in front of my hut; the many toed creature who didn't walk in my hair (but did sleep in my room); my hutmate and me on the steps of our hut. The admittedly boring video below is taken so you can have a sense of the bridge where I spent oodles of time in sitting and walking meditation.

26 November 2007

Last day in Bangkok

I woke up early on Saturday morning—and I was nervous. It was the day for my big seminar, a day when about 40 people (I was told) would come and hear about “transformative learning and contemplative practice” from me. After a hot shower and an “American breakfast” (eggs, fruit and toast), I was off to the seminar. We walked through the university building surrounded by posters, in Thai, advertising my talk. I could tell it was about me because the only English characters were “Assistant Professor Doctor” and my name (seems like an awful lot of titles). The seminar room filled—and then overfilled—with dark-haired people speaking a lyrical and utterly foreign language. I felt completely out of place and wondered how I would make it through the next three hours.

The seminar began with mediation and then suddenly me. I bumped my way though the opening, not having any of my regular beginning-of-a-seminar teaching tools to rely on: the translation was not simultaneous, so I would speak for a minute or two to about half the group who understood me, and then I’d wait for a minute or three (Thai takes a long time!) for the rest of the group to hear. It was like being on an international phone call where the voices don’t quite line up with each other, and I was awkward during the times when I wasn’t speaking. This is a hard way to get into the flow of the room. But eventually I did get into a flow, and there were enough English speakers in the room to laugh at my jokes and descriptions which loosened me up some (and then the funny echo of laughter after the translation would come). And as time went by, even the ones I was pretty sure didn’t understand a word of my language would look at me so attentively and hopefully, waiting for the next thing they could understand, that the seminar ended up feeling as warm as any I’ve done in a long time. Then finally, in a rush of good questions and a pause for ending meditation, it was over.

After lunch (here even the food they serve in university seminars is delicious—fresh and flavorful), I met with the curriculum committee of the new masters degree in Transformative education and contemplative studies. Sitting on mats on the floor, with green tea and sweets (and bugle corn snacks which I remember from my youth), we talked about the goals for the center, about my work at IET, about what had brought these folks to this work. The committee is a volunteer group of contemplative practitioners who work in science, engineering, the arts, and peace education. They were playful and serious and smart and wonderful. Three of us broke off to get massages (yum!) but we most of us met up for an impromptu roof-top party to celebrate the yearly river festival Loy Krathong.

Everyone brought food and drink, and we took it to the most beautiful house I’ve seen here, brand new and taking full advantage of its riverside location. We ate on a rooftop terrace, the music from the wat across the river providing a fitting soundtrack. There was another American there (the first I’ve seen since I’ve been in Thailand) and several of the folks from the group had lived in or visited the US. The chatter was a mix of Thai and English, peppered with booms from the fireworks always going off somewhere, and flavored with ready laughter. We lit our krathongs down by the river, and laughed as the wind blew out the flames or the current sent them to be netted in the water hyacinths that cover the river here. I couldn’t believe how at home I felt at this party with these people, nearly all of whom had been strangers before. They seemed genuinely sad to be saying goodbye (I know I was), and I think I will see at least some of them again. I hope so.

This morning, my last here, Aeh and Gig picked me up and took me to a floating market. We walked through amazing stands of produce to find ourselves in what seemed to me to be a movie set meant to display the glories of rural Thailand. How else could you explain all of the colors and smells and sounds—and the fact that nearly all of the stalls, food sizzling or smoking or steaming—were floating, these ancient boats tied to our pier filled with sweets and savories like I’ve never seen before. I watched a woman in a boat make the best pad Thai I ever tasted and I bought it for less than a dollar and ate it in front of a floating stall with smoking fish and grilling chicken. Gig and Aeh and I took a boat trip down the river to a nearby wat. We threw bread into the water for the masses of fish so thick they made the river churn and boil. At the wat, I took a fistful of orchids and put them on an altar, lit incense, and prayed a deep prayer of thanksgiving to any god who was listening. I have eaten and prayed and laughed and talked and meditated my way through these eight days, and I am sated and content and so happy that I think maybe tropical flowers will sprout from my fingers.

It turns out that the best thing about this trip to Thailand for me isn’t the magnificent food, the lovely scenery, the ever-present foreignness of the place. The best thing for me has been the people. The people who have brushed against my life—sometimes in tiny vignettes, sometimes for more extended conversations—have been so warm and friendly, so smart and interesting. I found myself overcome with admiration for so many people doing such wonderful things in the world. I have been moved by their kindness, their generosity, their warm welcome. I know that much of this is because Aeh and Gig are themselves so admirable that hanging out in their circles put me in a good crowd. But the quality of people here is remarkable, and I can’t help but believe the strong Buddhist faith here is at least partly responsible for the high level of reflection, of orientation towards making the world a better place.

24 November 2007

Wat Sukato

Driving through Bangkok after the long journey home from the wat. These packed sidewalks and bumper-to-bumper traffic seem especially odd after the empty rural spaces of the wat. I will have to take it slowly to understand what the experience at the wat meant to me. Today, still in the car 11 hours after leaving the wat at sunrise, I have done remarkably little processing of the experience—probably because meditation practice pushes you away from analysis and reflection and into the mindful awareness of the moment and the quieting of the brain. I think I’ll go the Buddhist way and describe the experience first—to name my physical experience and then see if something arises for me to say about the emotional experience.

We were traveling to a province about which my guidebook had said “You’re more likely to see a tiger than a foreign tourist—and this is not a province known for its tigers.” We arrived at the wat after a full day on the road (rather than the 4 hours the monk says it takes!), a couple of those after-dark on red dust roads with more potholes than flat. The nun who had traveled with us from Bangkok had gotten hopelessly turned around, and in a place with no lights or street signs (or street names) it finally meant getting out of the car at each intersection to ask anyone who might be visible for directions to the wat (since many of the houses didn’t have solid walls, there were often people visible). I had surprisingly few moments of panic—we were hours after dark, hours from the last village—but I figured we were likely to find our way to someplace at some time. The only real trouble was how bad bumps are for the bladder. (One word here about toileting issues: zowie. I have still not quite learned the rules in this new land.)

Finally, we found the wat—a far cry from the magnificent “town wats” we had toured or passed in Bangkok and on the route north. This was a rough concrete structure on a red dirt road. The kitchen area was behind it, a concrete block floor with some chain link walls and a rusted metal roof. As we pulled up, we could see through the mesh walls to the bald nuns sweeping with twig-bunch brooms. They had cooked us a vegetarian dinner—most generous since the nuns cook (and eat) only once each day at breakfast. I was exhausted and not a little overwhelmed, and wanted food like I wanted another couple of hours on the back roads. But we ate to be polite (Aeh ate much more than he wanted to make up for my eating so little), and then I was shown to my hut. This hut had two rooms—each about 8 cubic feet. The first thing I noticed about the room was how clean it was—immaculate. Then the cause of the cleanliness—it was utterly empty. Not a table, not a lamp, and, alas, not a bed nor a cot. I was grateful for the screened windows. It wasn’t until the next morning that I would discover the hut’s two best features: the occupant of the hut’s other room who was a marvelous woman of about 75 who had been to and loved New Zealand and who had a handful of English words in her vocabulary, and an honest to goodness flush toilet. (It was later that day that I discovered the showerhead from the wall in the bathroom, the hole low in the wall for drainage and the sorry single tap, for cold water on hard or soft.)

It was a surreal first night, the roosters believing that the best time to begin their pre-dawn crowing was at midnight, six hours pre-dawn (the next night was to prove that they had slept in). I huddled in the sleeping bag Aeh had brought me (it’s the winter season here and gets actually chilly in northern Thailand) and rued my decision not to bring my travel pillow on this part of the journey. At 3am, the sound of the good-morning gong reverberated through the forest, haunting and magnificent. At 4 am, the gong again, quickly followed by the chanting voices spreading through the trees. With only a few hours of rough and uncomfortable sleep, surrounded by the chorus of chanting and crowing, I felt joy spread through my body: I had come a long way to be in a different world, and baby, I had arrived! I stayed awake until I heard my hutmate make her way up the stairs and into her room, and then I fell asleep long and hard to find the sun shining and Aeh knocking gently at my door. 7 am. Time for the breakfast ritual.

The walk from my hut to the kitchen was down the red dirt road and past the lovely ponds which would be my favorite places during my stay. I was starving but anxious when we arrived to find mostly old women in rows facing the two rows of orange-clad monks. I would later learn that these women were mostly from the surrounding area, and they come to the wat each morning to deliver food in lovely baskets, to stay for the morning chanting, and to watch the monks begin to eat the food they had brought. Then, their baskets empty, they head back into the town. Before anyone eats, though, there is chanting. While others chanted, Aeh taught me how to bow before the Buddha. Forehead to the tile floor with the murmured sounds of Pali all around me, I had a nearly out-of-body experience. For real was I here in a forest wat in Thailand bowing in front of a golden statue? The nun we had traveled with came to tell us that the nuns had prepared a vegetarian meal for us—the second of many meals they would prepare, unrequested, just for me (the bags of food we had brought with the assumption that there would be only one meal a day were donated to the wat when we left). I watched the monks eat their meal (first) and then went into the kitchen to get mine and then bring it back to eat in silence with the others gathered to worship on the floor of the wat. Breakfast, day one.

Aeh and I took off on our own (after washing our plates in the incredibly rough but systematic washing system) and wandered around the pond, wondering what to do first. His mobile phone rang (his worked, mine didn’t), with our friend the nun telling us that the abbot of the wat (the monk who had come to my seminar) had arrived briefly and was free to talk to us. We came in, bowed three times, and found the monk waiting for us next to the Buddha. In deeply accented lovely English, he gave me my first teaching. His message was, mostly, to be playful. Meditation was a kind of “serious play.” Nothing to be forced, nothing to make you stressed. Mistakes, wandering of the mind, emotion, all this is about learning, and practice is about learning, so “pay it no mind and just go on.” He showed us how he meditates when he’s tired, slumping against a pole and showing us seriously sub-prime mediation posture. He told us about how thoughts and emotions come to him and he just sends them away. And then he said something like:

Imagine that you are on the shore of the ocean. You watch the waves going up and down, in and out. You watch them, you see the motion, you don’t have any control over the up and down, the in and out. But neither are you wet, sitting on the shore. Sometimes the water calls to you and you go into the ocean, and now you are wet. Now the waves move you up and down with them. Now you are controlled by the waves. This is like the practice, watching your thoughts move but not being controlled by them. And if you are called into your thoughts or your emotions, you feel yourself going up and down with them. And then you remember to be mindful, and you go back on the shore. And you are wet, but you are not in the water anymore, so you will dry. There is nothing to be worried, just to watch the waves going up and down. This is the practice.

And I loved this man and he made me happy, and the happiness carried me through the first day. Now I’m at my hotel where, to my terrible dismay, my hot water was BROKEN! But they’ve fixed it and I’m headed to bed (ahhhh, how beautiful it is to mean that literally tonight!). More stories tomorrow. This is just to let you know that I survived—and maybe even thrived—at the wat.

20 November 2007

Blissed out in Bangkok

So it was another fantastic day in Bangkok. The seminar went well and I was awed and amazed at the quality of questions the people asked, by their stature (many seriously impressive people, including the monk at the wat where I'll go tomorrow), by their warmth. Then Aeh and I went to another wat, perhaps more spectacular than any others I've seen. After the wat, it was time to visit a night bazaar, although it wasn’t yet night. Our goal was to get me home and in bed really early because it’s an early morning start tomorrow. Ahhh, but the shopping was astonishing—unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. So we stayed there for hours, listening to the rain pour outside, feeling it leak through the roof and splash on the Thai silk scarves and shirts and skirts. Tomorrow we’re off to the wat in the north, so I’ll be quiet for the next couple of days and then have quite a lot to say about a whole other piece of Thailand.

19 November 2007


5:30 Monday morning in Bangkok

Last night I was so tired I couldn’t even wait and see whether the video had finished loading! I slept hard and well and now am awake enough to do some writing here before heading off to give my first (of two) seminars. The place we’re going for the seminar is 30 minutes away by car without traffic. But this is Bangkok so we’ll leave 90 minutes ahead.

I have come to Thailand to see a friend, to give some talks, and to learn to meditate here in a land where 95% of the population is Buddhist. And of course, there’s the thrill of being in Thailand, a place that has always sounded like a wonderful way to start a relationship with Asia. I think of this as a developmental experience for lots of reasons. I’m wanting to learn meditation because more and more research is showing that it’s one of the best presents you can give to your brain and body. I am well aware that they teach meditation in Wellington (and have also read enough books on the subject that I have a grasp of the basics). I wanted to set a meditation practice in stone, though, to begin with a commitment that I thought would root a practice deep in my mind and body. So my friend Aeh, who lived with us for 4 months three years ago as he studied development with me for his PhD, has arranged this schedule of seminars and curriculum consultation, in great measure to pay for the three days at a forest wat (= monastery) in the northeast of Thailand.

Yesterday it was Bangkok day. I slept in a little after my late night, and then Aeh and his wife Gig picked me up for a day on the town. We drove the 75 minutes from my Bangkok hotel into the Bangkok city center, and explored on foot, by boat, taxi, and rik-rik. As we walked through the markets, rode on the boat, flew kites in the park, I was utterly blissed out and felt like a sponge, pulling in as many sights and sounds and smells as possible.

The most important thing to say is that Aeh and Gig are magnificent human beings, and so being with them is incredibly safe and wonderful. Aeh has a PhD and works (for not much longer) at a university; Gig is a trained counselor and has worked with the orphans in Phuket, with HIV sufferers in Bangkok, and now works with alcoholics and drug addicts. Together they are beginning a business which is cultivating love in organizations and about bringing more compassion and a higher consciousness into the world. These are two people it would be fun to hang out with in a stuck elevator. Walking through Bangkok with them is a joy.

And Bangkok is an astonishing city. It is such a blend of everything imaginable that it’s hard to think of how I can capture it here. Just lining the river itself are the many layers of life here: new and incredibly expensive high rise hotels, small metal shanties with no glass in the windows, lovely restaurants, ancient and magnificent wats. They live shoulder to shoulder along the banks of a river teeming with boats and barges and long tailed speed boats unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

Bangkok is about a full assault on the senses: the bitter tang and rich scents of all the Thai cooking from street vendors everywhere. The feel of cool marble or wood on bare feet in the wats. The constant churning noise of talking, haggling, cars, tuk-tuks. The colours and images of the wats, as breathtaking as any cathedral I’ve ever seen but utterly different from those. The taste of the best Pad Thai I ever had, on a restaurant next to the river, the hot humid air pushed around by cool river breezes. I spent the day feeling like my tank was constantly full.

I think probably Wat Pho was the place that was most surprising to me. Aeh told me we would see the “reclining Buddha” which sounded good to me. The surrounds of the main wat are so beautifully covered in shards of pottery and intricate floral and geometric designs that it hardly mattered how wonderful this particular Buddha himself might be. Or so I thought. But the sight of the reclining, gilded Buddha was out of scope with any image I would have had of him. Enclosed in a building that is just large enough to hold him, he lies peacefully shining—46 meters long and 15 meters high. For those of you who don’t do much metric, perhaps it’s enough to say that his ear (which, as a Buddha is admittedly large) was way taller than me. I was breathless.

Then out through the tiled stupas to the golden statue that represents compassion (she always moves me) in a courtyard under a Bhodi tree (which is where the Buddha found enlightenment). Aeh and Gig and I lit incense and kneeled in front of the golden, smiling compassion, who stood under the tree and was garlanded by flowers. As I kneeled, I was overcome with joy. Here I was in Thailand in a courtyard with school children playing soccer in the background and orange-robed monks watching. Aeh had told me to ask for something, to be blessed in some way. I was so blessed in that moment that anything else would have been greedy. Then, on the wooden wall behind the statue, a tiny kitten—grey and white—began stalking something through the grass at the foot of the tree. She took big steps and was stealthy and serious. Finally she approached her goal—her two littermates, who all leaped in the air and raced around the tree trunk. It turned out that I could have more joy than just with the statue and the monks and the tree—add in three kittens. I could feel Jamie with me all the while.

The other unexpected high point of the day was flying kites in a big field which Aeh tells me is always covered with kite flyers. And a high point I expected—but was awed by—was going to Gig’s house to have dinner with her family (who have been practicing making vegetarian meals for a week). But those stories will have to wait. I’m off to give a seminar. As I’ve been writing, I’ve ordered my bowl of porridge—this time with sugar. The fellow on the phone was confused by the request, but said it would be up soon. The room service man who delivered them with a smile didn’t ask me to sign anything, which surprised me. My head in this essay, I walked in and sat down to find that they had delivered me two empty bowls with four packets of sugar. Not exactly the wholesome breakfast I was hoping for. I’ve sent the order back down and we’ll see what happens. In Bangkok, there are surprises everywhere.

Being here

Ok so tonight I'm so tired that I can hardly breathe. I have had a magnificent day and am filled to overflowing with the differences of this place, the contradictions and juxtapositions of it, and the amazing beauty. And I’ve been walking in the heat all day and to my body it’s 3am, so now isn’t the time for me to wax on about this. Instead, for this night you can experience a bit of it yourselves, and then tomorrow I’ll probably wake up early enough to post more pictures and some stories. Tonight it’s enough for you to know that I am one happy camper in Bangkok!

18 November 2007

Greetings from Bangkok

And so the adventure begins.

I am sitting in a suite in my hotel in Thailand, eating the porridge it took three people to understand that I wanted from room service (porridge being the only vegetarian option on the menu). It’s a wimpy thing to order room service, I know, but I wasn’t up to facing this brand new world on my own quite yet after 5 hours of sleep. (Besides, when I asked for porridge and they finally understood what I meant, they brought just that—one cup of oatmeal, cooked, no water, no milk, no sugar—so I’m paying for my wimpy decisions. But at least it’s not a spicy goat curry at 8 am!)

From outside my window in this tourist/business hotel come the sounds of roosters and barking dogs and a bunch of people yelling as if for a race or a game. Inside it’s just the loud hum and rattle of the air conditioner.

And now my cell phone with Bangkok sim card has rung and Aeh is downstairs waiting for me. So I’m off to face the day. Expect pictures and some stories when I get back!

15 November 2007


So there’s good news and there’s bad news The good news is that Naomi passed her swim test today—effortlessly. The bad news is that our house was “passed over” at auction, which means that no one actually bid on it. So, we’re still on the market here in New Zealand, and now we’re waiting for our buyer to find us.

There’s disappointment here, but Rob and Melissa and Michael and I spent the day together. We all went out for coffee after dropping the kids, and then Michael and I headed for yoga where Tina the magnificent took us out of our brooding and into our bodies. Then back to listen to the failed auction—but not to brood on it—and the four of us laughed and hung out and shopped for second-hand kitchens for our new house. And we listened to Melissa play her new accordion. What could be bad about a day like that?

Thailand the day after tomorrow. Today I unpacked the summer clothes to pack into a suitcase to take with me. I’ll leave the family with a house still on the market and a second house still a total mess. Wish us all luck.

13 November 2007

Piles and Parables

My life makes for a particularly confusing parable right now. This week has too many incoherent threads to be a helpful set of ideas about what I should be learning in this phase. It’s hard when you can’t figure out how to use your own life as a metaphor.

Take today, for example. This morning we woke up, walked the dog on the beach, and had a cup of coffee with Dave (the spectacular chippy) as we went through our plans for the future of our new house. This is a pretty good beginning to a day. While we were talking kitchens and windows and other big and little issues, his phone rang. It was the pile driver saying he’d be at our house today to drive new piles, deep in the sand, to hold up the house as we build upwards into the attic to get the room up there. There are great metaphors here. We have to dig down to be able to go up. We have to lay a firm foundation in places that will never see the light of day in order to build beautiful things way in the sky. You get the point. It’s also true that the house has been at a holding point lately waiting for those piles. More metaphors—need a firm foundation to build walls, once you have a foundation everything begins to move quickly, etc. Lovely grounding set of things there (and I’ve given Dave my camera to take pictures of the thing as it happens so there might be pictures here of that).

But as we were talking to Dave, we were also hyperactively straightening the house. We have a showing today. It’s T minus 2 days until the auction on Thursday. Things have just about never been more uncertain than they are in this house where we live now. On Thursday, we’ll learn things about what the next part of the future holds, but right now those things are unlearnt, are behind a black curtain. So even as the new house is looking more and more clear, the old house is looking less and less clear. What happens next is anyone’s guess. It could sell at auction for a decent price or for a lousy one. The new owners might want to move in early December or in late January. It might not sell at all if no one is willing to pay what we think it’s minimally worth. Then we’ve got the decision about how to proceed moving forward. We are ungrounded with questionable foundations. Thursday holds answers, but the answers will either lead to clarity or to more uncertainty.

And through it all, I’m getting ready to go to Thailand. I’m going to do some work with my friend Aeh there, and, among other things, it’s a growth experience I’m after with this trip. I’ll do a variety of pieces of reflecting—in public and private forums—about my life journey thus far. I’ll spend a couple of days just in transport (it’s 14 hours each way on an airplane, and there will be about two days worth of driving inside Thailand itself) which brings its own kind of reflection and thought experiences. And I’ll have 3 days meditating in a Forest Wat, in the lonely and lovely northeast of Thailand. All the time I’ll be with Aeh, who is making this whole trip possible (and finding a way to pay for it) through his work at a Thai university where I’ll be presenting and consulting about a new curriculum. Aeh and I met when I helped make possible his trip to the US about four years ago when he came to study with me and live with my family while he was still a doctoral student. Now he’s a PhD and is working on understanding the connections between development, wisdom, compassion, and contemplative practices. This is a beautiful set of ideas to be working on, and I’m honoured to be a part of that.

The parables inside this trip are both grounded and also unknown. I am grounded in this friendship, in the intellectual and emotional exploration that developmental study provides, in the transformational nature of coming together to learn about the way we ourselves change over time. I am grounded in the beautiful karma of my reaching out to help a stranger four years ago and now finding myself held and supported by a friend who has invited me to see a new world. There are lovely chances for this man who was my student for many months to now be my teacher and lead me into a new culture and a new meditation practice. And amidst that grounding, I am swimming in uncertainty. I don’t know what I’ll wear or what I’ll eat or how I’ll live inside a culture so profoundly different. I don’t know what it will be like for me to sit in silent meditation in a Thai forest for three days, to sleep in a hut, to see monkeys in the trees. What will I discover about the world, about myself?

But perhaps there are parables here that are useful if I braid all of these strands together. Perhaps this week is about the very nature of life and its beautiful certainties and uncertainties. This week is about making new beginnings of all sorts, and it’s about the way those new beginnings can be smooth or bumpy, known or totally unknown. I’m sharply aware of how my uncertainties press up against the lives of others: Dave bought himself a new house this week and will start working on that soon. At the auction, there will be many houses bought and sold, and many lives changing right in front of me. And on my trip I will visit an ancient country with ancient religious practices which is bumping up against the modern world and which is dealing with its own uncertainty (the bloodless coup there) and the uncertainty of its neighbours (like Burma). We are all of us always standing on ever firmer foundations, and all of us reaching toward some unknown future state. It’s just that this week, I have more reminders of that than usual.

(You’ll see there are no new pictures. Dave still has the camera—and the piles aren’t totally done. There are big posts outside the front of the house, though, and depressing new holes on the floor. The lesson here is that even when the future looks clear, it likely isn’t. So now I’ll just float in the murk of it all and keep you posted about what happens next.)

08 November 2007

Surf’s up

Naomi has joined the Surf Club, which is a New Zealand tradition for those who live by the beach (which is a lot of kids). New Zealand is a place that takes swimming safety really seriously. Drowning in the sea or one of the plentiful rushing rivers is always a danger, and it is a New Zealand goal to have each person here be a strong swimmer. In the US, some kids have swimming lessons during summer camp. In NZ, swimming is a mandatory part of the school curriculum, many schools have their own (very small) pools, and every kid we know takes swimming lessons through the year. Surf Club is one piece of that.

Surf Club is serious. There is a Thursday evening practice in a local pool for strength and water skills, and there is a hulking two-hour practice on Sunday afternoons on the beach for lifesaving skills, strength training, and ocean skills. As I watch Naomi navigate this world—where all of her friends have been involved for years longer than she has—I have ample time to watch my own reactions as a parent and try to figure out what messages I want to give her.

Take last Thursday night. Naomi needed to pass a 200m swim test at the pool. She had come for a practice earlier in the week and had been able to swim the eight lengths in the appointed time. No worries. But she had been working herself into a froth for days about it, nervously wondering what would happen if she failed the test. By the time we got to the pool, she was a shaking mess. She went in the pool to warm up, got out because it was too cold, sat shivering on the side, non-commutative and freaking out, turtled in silence except for the occasional rude outburst. I coaxed and wheedled and got her back into the water, got her back to start the test. She was panicking and stressed and she wanted me by her side, as is often true in an unfamiliar place. Would I walk all the way down the side of the pool with her? Yes. So I walked a length of the pool by her side, marvelling at how quick and graceful her stroke was. And then she stopped after a single length, not even winded. I urged her to go on, but she was done, seven lengths too soon. I tried coaxing and wheedling some more, but she and I had both reached the end of some invisible rope. She held on to the side of the pool and wept. The swim instructors huddled around her, huddled around me, gently offered that maybe I shouldn’t come to the practice next week, that I was making her nervous. They suggested—with a gentle and unblaming matter-of-factness—that I wait in the car. I felt a rage inside me—not at them, but at little weeping Naomi. She had QUIT!

I walked away as they surrounded her and coaxed her into the pool with the others in her age group to do the regular practice of the rest of the group. I went outside and sat on a bench under the tall deck of the bar upstairs. I looked at the sea and wondered what I was about Naomi’s giving up that made me so angry. Giving up is a major button for me. As a soccer coach for a middle school girl’s team fifteen years ago, I was totally unphased by the loss of every single game (I was not a good soccer coach, apparently). If a girl was doing practice laps and slowed down to a crawl, no worries at all. But if a girl was doing practice laps and stopped, I got really upset. The sentence “I can’t” sets me off.

Michael came out and sat next to me on the bench and we watched the sea together. He gently asked questions about how I was making sense of this, about how she had been making sense of it. He suggested that perhaps the best way to face her was with compassion and curiosity. I laughed—I had spent that day leading a workshop about going towards people with compassion and curiosity. And now here I was actually faced with a situation which pushed my buttons and I was, I decided “pissy and punishing.” I sat on the bench and wondered about whether I should give up my regular consulting gigs and come up with a curriculum to teach people to be more pissy and punishing. I amused myself for a few minutes wondering what role plays I might suggest, what structures I might offer that would help people hold on to that pissy and punishing mindset. I wondered what, evolutionarily, made it easier for us to hold on to a pissy and punishing place than a compassionate and curious one.

Naomi was dramatically upset for the rest of the night. She rushed into her room from the car, slammed the door, and wept at the top of her lungs. Perhaps fearing this would not have the volume she wanted, she opened the door to her room and cried at the top of her lungs that way. I was unmoved by the drama. She came out to tell me she was quitting Surf Club, that she’d never go back. I told her—at first gently and then more firmly—that quitting was not an option this year. Back into her room, more tears. It wasn’t until the weekend that we could talk about it and work out our next steps—she would try again on Thursday, and she’d try again until she passed.

And then Sunday dawned grey and cold and raining. This is her on-the-beach day. I finished fixing the house for the open house and walked down the beach to find her in a too-small wetsuit (and I thought she had to be wrong about that—it was so big on her last year), jumping up and down to keep herself warm and hurling herself into the sand as directed—and then into the sea. If she had quit then, if she had said “I can’t” when faced with the raging sea (which frightens her on a sunny day), if she had complained about the sand chafing inside her wetsuit—all of these things I was prepared to forgive. Unlike the mysterious behaviour at the pool, where the quitting was bizarre, this quitting here would be justified. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but I was prepared for it, and I faced the idea with equanimity and compassion.

I didn’t need any of those things, though—just a warmer hat and maybe a pair of gloves. Naomi dove in the sand, leapt through the waves, jogged along the shore. She did it without complaint or fretting. And I discovered—as I have rererediscovered in so many situations—that we can never understand another person’s demons, never really make sense of what drives or moves or frightens those we love the most. Why would I be less curious and compassionate about one potentially-frightening scene rather than another? Her quitting in a setting I didn’t think was scary or uncomfortable (like the pool) troubled me, but her quitting in a setting I’m not sure I could handle (like this beach on this windy cold day) seemed reasonable. On one hand this makes sense—we understand the things we understand, after all. On the other hand, it’s absurd for me to react differently to the same outcome in different situations. It isn’t me, after all, who determines what’s overwhelming or scary to Naomi. I’ve learnt that lesson many times over the years of dealing with scary noises and monsters under the bed and (this one still drives me crazy) her ear-piercing screams upon the discovery of a bug. I am compassionate in the face of fears and worries I share, and I am irritated—and sometimes even angry—in the face of fears I do not. How many other people’s fears and demons to I diminish because I do not share them? How many times do I privilege my own experience? Thousands? Millions? Billions of times?

Tonight, one week from the huddled Naomi terrified and quitting at the pool, she was back again. This time we talked about it, planned the whole thing out. We decided this was just a “dress rehearsal,” that it wasn’t the real thing. We decided that Michael and I wouldn’t watch her, but would be close by (nowhere that required us to move the car, was the bargain). I watched her (from a perch where she couldn’t see me) sitting with her friends, waiting her turn for the test. She was alternately laughing and joking and urging them on and chewing on her nails and looking terrified. When it came time to do the test, she stopped after two laps, but then began again a few minutes later, slowly backstroking her way down the lanes, zig-zagging across the pool. She was off time by 50 seconds, but still emerged strong and engaged. She hadn’t been really trying, she told us, which made it all feel so much better. Now she knew how much time it took when she didn’t even try and she was convinced she could do it next week—certainly those 50 seconds would be easy to recover if she tried a little. I do not yet understand this logic either, but the outcome of this is clear. For this week, at least, the demons are gone, and she’s just a little girl swimming and laughing with her friends. And I am a mother who is incrementally wiser, and who can see the bravery in the smallest acts and courage in the arc of an arm slicing through water.

05 November 2007


Some mornings it all goes so smoothly. Today was one of those mornings. I got up and did yoga and then Michael and I threw the ball for Perry in the park right next to our new house (high tide, big waves so no beach today). When Michael left for work, I got the kids up and got us all ready to go. We were a little late but all so cheerful about it and everyone helping everyone else to get out the door. Rushing up the hill, we told each other how much we loved each other, and promised to have lovely days, and it was a delight. There are mornings that are so unlike this you’d almost imagine that I am two women living inside two different families. And there’s some real truth to that, I suppose.

It was a seriously mixed weekend. Friday was Michael’s NZ birthday and the kids were off school for a teacher work day. So we went into town and wandered from kitchen store to bathroom store and looked at fixtures and cabinets and toilets. And then we had a lovely dinner with the last of the Rob gift certificates and came home on the train with a magnificent sunrise following us. Saturday (on Michael’s actual, US birthday—you have to celebrate for two days if you move across the international date line), we went to the Lamb and Calf fair at a local school. Then more kitchen and bathroom studies. Here’s what we learnt about New Zealand this weekend.

We discovered, at the lamb and calf show, that lambs are every bit as cute as you might think they are. We’ve seen them scampering in the fields, we’ve held and fed them, and so we knew this was true. But this was a school fair where the local farm kids could bring their pet lambs to the fair with them, on short ribbon leads. These pet lambs, washed and brushed and like walking cotton balls, were so beautiful that Naomi announced firmly that she was now a vegetarian. Only she’d still eat chicken. But no mammals, she decided. Not ever. This new promise was sorely tested by the fact that the only non-mammal choices at the fair were fish cakes (yum!) or some kind of egg or salad dish. So she had a steak sandwich for lunch. But other than that, she’s a vegetarian for sure!

The other main lesson—and this one was new to us—is that there is apparently some statute in New Zealand that prohibits the useful exchange of information around kitchen renovation projects. This must be a serious and long-standing law with firm penalties, because it was followed so stringently by every person we dealt with. We were impressed with the consistency of our experience in wildly different shops.

So, at the first store, a custom cabinet place. We told the English kitchen designer that we were new to this whole world and just wanting to gather some information.

“Yeah,” he agreed, “it’s really different here.”

We communed for a few minutes on the immigrant experience and moved on to cabinets. He showed us the different grades and offered a variety of rationales for why one grade was better than another. “What’s the difference in cost between these?” we asked.

“Ah, I couldn’t answer that,” he said. “It just depends.”

How about a rough measure—nothing we’d hold him to—was one twice as expensive as another? Three times? And were we talking $10,000 in cabinets or $100,000?

“Impossible to know,” he explained sadly.

To give us even a rough, within 40k guess, he told us, he’d have to come and measure our kitchen and then design it and then we could talk. “I couldn’t possibly estimate,” he assured us. “I wouldn’t have a clue about how to do that.”

Store 2. Italian cabinets.

Me: “These look seriously expensive.”

Cute Sales Guy: “Yes, they are a bit dear.”

Me: “How much does a typical kitchen cost?”

CSG: “Well, there’s no such thing as a ‘typical kitchen’ really.”

Me. “How much would THIS model kitchen cost?”

CSG: “About $80,000 give or take.”

Ah, we have a number at last! Glorious precision!

Me: “Waaaaaay too much for us, I’m afraid.”

CSG: “We are trialling a new line—nearly as good but much less expensive. Would you be interested in that?”

Me: “Yeah, if it were enough less expensive. How much less are you talking—50%? 10%? 75%?”

CSG: “Oh, I couldn’t begin to estimate.”

Store 3. Inexpensive, off the rack cabinets store (Home Depot like).

Me: “Can you tell me the difference between these different benchtop materials?”

Sales guy with many missing teeth: “Those are a hell of a lot of money!”

Me: “Do you have any idea how much they are—like by the metre?”

SGWMMT: “I don’t think that’s how they’re priced—I think they have to come out and measure and then give you a quote. I don't think it's by the metre--they just figure it out somehow. I don't know how they do it--I just know they’re a hell of a lot.”

Me: “Do you have any idea of the relative price of them—like which is more expensive than any other?”

SGWMMT: “Expensive? They’re all more expensive!”

Me: “So are they all about the same price?”

SGWMMT: “I don’t have a clue. I just know they’re expensive.”

Me: “Who here in the store might have more information about these benchtops?”

SGWMMT, looking around, helplessly: “I don’t have a clue.”

This, by the way, is not the end of this pattern. We met with three other people and had three other conversations that went like this. No estimates, no baseline price per metre, no sense of this kitchen is 30k and that one is 65k as we would have known in the US. No sense of this store does cabinets with a 15k average kitchen and this store does them with a 150k average kitchen. In every case, you design the kitchen first—getting all the details right—and then and only then do you get any sense of what this kitchen might cost. This seems like a lot of extra work for them and a lot of extra work for us if the cabinets might be totally outside our price range. I found myself achingly missing those little two pagers you can get at every kitchen place in the US with the baseline price of the cabinets (by the running foot) and the top range price if you got all the extras. Clearly the law that prohibits the exchange of this information in New Zealand is protecting someone (me?) from information overload. I’m impressed to be in a country of such law-abiding citizens.

So, after two days and dozens of kitchen drawers opened, benchtops felt, colours flipped through, the New Zealand kitchen scene is totally clear: it turns out, we don’t have a clue.

(pics today from the fair and M's birthday and also the back of our house with the back porch and woodshed knocked off.)

03 November 2007


I used to feel confident on Halloween. The weekend before we’d have prepared, carved our pumpkin, laid in supplies of candy, and perfected the costumes. On Halloween night itself, I would know to take the kids out after quite an early dinner and before night fall. We would go with friends and wander from house to house, knowing that the better the Halloween decorations, the better the candy was likely to be. We knew not to stay out too late or else the big kids in really scary costumes would show up. We knew to allow an extra 45 minutes for the post-trick-or-treating obligatory sorting and trading of candy (slightly longer for Naomi, who would also make a written inventory of her candy to protect against culling mothers) . Halloween 2007, kiwi style, was not that kind of event.

First of all, in the places I’ve lived before, Halloween is about the crunch of leaves under your feet, the crisp bite of air that might make your mom insist on a jacket over your princess dress. Not here. Here it’s a spring event, with blooming flowers and late-glowing sun. Because of this (maybe?), there are no decorations, no jack-o-lanterns. A friend told us she had carved her first pumpkin and was anxious because she had put the lid back on it and left it burning. Will it burn down the house? she asked us knowledgeable Americans. No way, we explained, assuring her that we left the pumpkins lit on our front stoop each year. Hers were lit inside the house though, she told us. We glanced nervously at each other and were less reassuring. We’ve never thought of a pumpkin burning inside the house.

The kids were confused too sometimes. Little AG, MG’s daughter, who turned out to be the best part of fun. The daughter of an American mother, AG has always lived in New Zealand—all her life until now in the far north, in a place where Halloween isn’t celebrated at all. So it came to be that she was six and experiencing the glories of Halloween for the first time. While my children were bemoaning the relatively low key, small scale of this Halloween, AG was reveling in it. Or at least she was once she got the hang of it.

At first we had to explain it all. So there was the question about whether costumes could be pretty or just had to be scary (we thought probably both were ok, which was good news because she was lovely). Then there was the whole trick-or-treating conversation, which went something like:

“What is trick-or-treating?”

It’s when you go to someone’s house and they give you candy?

Why do they do that?

Because it’s Halloween.

But why do they give you candy on Halloween?

Because that’s what happens on Halloween.

But WHY does that happen?

And so on, going ahead each time until we ran out of answers, which sometimes happened rather quickly (why DO we do this??).

Then the first trick-or-treater came to our house and Aidan grabbed the candy bowl and ran out to the gate to give it out. I stood surprised as the father of the little fairy princess actually did a trick—a juggling routine—and then cheerfully accepted the candy from Aidan. AG, who had run out with her bag, skipping cheerfully up the path, came back dejected. “What’s wrong?” I asked her.

”It’s not fair at all!” she said, pouty-faced. “He took three pieces of candy from us and didn’t give us anything back!” More descriptions of the way things worked on Halloween. Those didn’t fully take either. Walking up the hill, candy bags painstakenly chosen and decorated, AG stopped short in her tracks. “Oh no!” she cried, “we have to go back! We forgot all the candy at home!” Aidan looked at me, the most mature and knowing expression on his six-year old face (or maybe it was the mustache), “She really doesn’t understand this thing!” he said.

There were others who didn’t understand Halloween either. There were prepared families, with chocolates in bowls just like at home. They had candy wrapped in little bars, just like I’m used to. The most adventurous families even had “gummy body parts” so that children could eat the stray nose or ear. But then there were some folks who looked surprised to see small children in lovely dresses (Naomi and our friend AG) and weird wigs (Aidan). And those families punted and gave bags of chips destined for their own children’s lunch box, lose candy (here called “lollies”), and even the odd gold coin here (Mommy-we got TWO dollars!!).

Surrounded by all these folks new to Halloween, we lost all of our own knowledge about the thing. We forgot to carve a pumpkin (here pumpkin is a food item and not a decorative item). We had no idea which houses to visit. Some houses have signs that say “no Halloween.” One had a helpful sign that said “Halloween here.” We wandered along, a little pack of Americans in fancy dress, through this rumply magnificent village, over dunes covered with houses, through backyard veggie patches, under flowering cherry trees. Occasionally we’d come upon little packs of New Zealand ghosts and princesses and super heroes. And then we went back to our house, the kids trick-or-treated from us (thus damaging AG’s sense of what Halloween was about). And we tucked our candy-filled children into their beds just as the springtime sun was sinking into the Tasman Sea. Just another Halloween night in New Zealand.