(I spent the winter of 2012 in silence on a self-guided retreat at the Forest Refuge, a Buddhist meditation center in rural Massachusetts. This twice-monthly blog, which begins with this installment, explores daily life in the silence, and how intensive retreats offer a compass for everyday life).
It is a warm afternoon, early March. I am deep into the retreat — ten weeks so far. As I head out for my daily walk in the forest that surrounds the center, I pass the communal message board near the dining room. A note is posted with my name on it. This is very odd. I read: Someone has called with news that my friend Bob died.
I turn back and return to my single dorm room, lie down, and cry. It’s a brief, clear, unobstructed cry. A few minutes later, I head out again to walk in the forest.
The first time I donated blood was August, 1973. I was 14 years old and weighed 100 pounds. I met neither the age nor weight requirement for blood donation. They took it anyway.
The blood clinic was at Long Island Jewish Hospital. My older brother, my only sibling, was a patient in the pediatric unit. The blood was for him.
Mark had been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia eight months earlier. With today’s treatments, as many as 90 percent of children survive it . But in the early 1970s, the grim medical consensus was incurable.
That didn’t stop my parents from trying, of course.
My favorite childhood book was a 1950s, pre-Harry Potter fantasy called “Knight’s Castle.” A group of four children set up an imaginary battlefield with toy soldiers from the time of Ivanhoe. They don’t know that one of the tin soldiers has magic power, and in the middle of the night the children are transported through time to a dreamlike kingdom. Their playfield has come alive.
Welcome to Rishikesh, India! Laxman Jhula, to be precise.
For the fourth time in two years, I have just spent a chunk of time in Europe. One month this go-around: England, France, and Germany (other recent trips included Spain and Italy). There’s no compelling reason I haven’t sent dispatches from these journeys, other than, perhaps, European travel lacks the shocking novelty of some other places where I have spent time (even as it is still wonderful and evocative). This letter skims a few thematic resonances that echoed through the most recent trip. I send it in the context of the Jewish New Year – for Jews the holiest season of the year, a time for reflection, renewal, remembrance, and rebirth.
February 14, 2013
We held a puja for Chris this evening, at sunset, on the banks of the Ganga River (mother Ganga, throughout India, the holiest of rivers), outside the Sacha Dam Ashram in Laxman Jhula. The sun was just setting, perfectly round and glowing pink/orange/red. The air was warm and glorious, the late afternoon unusually still and quiet for India.
Chris died eight months earlier. We had spent a full week together in Rishikesh a few years back. On my return, Kai, his widow and my beloved frien, offered me some of his ashes to bring with me.
December 2010, Green River, Vermont. I’m with my friend Craig in his comfortable old farmhouse, nestled in a picture-postcard setting. The kitchen windows look out on the gentle river and a covered wooden bridge. The place screams “Vermont!” like a cheesy advertisement from the Chamber of Commerce. He and I are having a fine visit. I am home.
February 2009, Rishikesh, India. It’s my third stay in four years at the cheap, funky, zero-star Hotel Ishan. I’m in my favorite room, overlooking the bustling Laxman Jhula footbridge that spans the Ganges. The sacred river sparkles below as the noisy jangle of townspeople and pilgrims rises up to my small porch. I love it here. It’s not my country, or my culture, and I’m home. Continue reading
I am hiking to the Continental Divide for the first time, and I am excited.
I first learned about this geographic novelty in 1968, in Mrs. Granich’s fifth-grade class, from mimeographed sheets redolent with the smell of fresh ink. On one side of the Divide, all water flows east—spilling and seeping its gradual way into the Atlantic Ocean. On the other, it flows west, rushing or rolling inexorably toward the Pacific. It’s a spiny fulcrum bisecting the Americas, from Alaska to the nether tip of South America. My starting base is an intentional farming community near the sleepy Costa Rican village of Buenos Aires. From here it’s a two-day climb to the Divide, which in this remote region remains an unspoiled, uncharted cloud- and rainforest. Continue reading