Wednesday, March 21, 2007

COMES THE PEACE: My Journey to Forgiveness by Daja Wangchuk Meston

Daja Wangchuk Meston begins his memoir dramatically with a desperate leap from a third story hotel window in a remote area of Tibet. It's a quick glimpse at a man pushed beyond his limits, unsure of his place in the world, and desperate beyond sense. When he jumped, he fully expected to die.

That was in 1999, and the author had been in the custody of Chinese authorities, suffering long days of interrogation with no sleep, accused of crimes against the People's Republic of China for his work on behalf of Tibetan rights.

The memoir then leaves behind that awful, desperate step--a step that shattered his heels and his life (both of which would take years to mend)--and takes us back in time to his first steps as a toddler on the Greek island of Corfu. Daja was born to hippie parents (Feather and Larry Greeneye) who hoped to leave behind the commercialism of their own American upbringing. When he was one, his parents travelled to India on a whim, and then on to Nepal to attend a Buddhist retreat. It was there, in the mountains of Nepal, that the author's father suffered a debilitating attack of paranoid schizophrenia and disappeared, only to emerge from the woods a week later, disheveled and incoherent. He was sent back to the states (alone) and did not see his son again until decades later.

When Daja was three years old, his mother inexplicably delivered him to a local family (Tibetan nobles, living in Nepal) to raise. For three years he believed they were his real family--until they sent him, alone, at the ripe old age of six, to a Buddhist monastery to take the vows of a monk.

A number of privileged Americans have gone (by choice) to monastic retreats, seeking solitude, respite, and peace. This might lead the innocent reader to assume that Daja's upbringing took place in a peaceful, idyllic setting. The truth is, his childhood was far from idyllic. Thanks in part to his pale skin and blond hair, Daja was treated as an outcast both by his peers and adult monks alike. And the indignities he suffered over the next ten years were Dickensian in scope: sleep deprivation, forced labor, lice infestations, constant hunger, humiliation, beatings, dysentery, alienation and isolation.

He was further emotionally orphaned by a mother who chose, herself, to join the (different) monastic life of a Buddhist nun, shaving her head, wearing robes, and leaving the secular world behind (to include the responsibilities of parenthood).

At its core, this is the heartbreaking story of a lost childhood. It is the tale of one man's lifelong search for identity, belonging, and the welcoming arms of family. And it is difficult to read this book and fathom what the young author endured without feeling angry on his behalf. But the adult Meston refuses to stay in a place of anger and self-pity, searching instead for a path toward understanding and forgiveness. Fortunately for all of us, the redemptive ending brings us full-circle, and--as the title implies--comes back around to peace.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


While in Arizona, we visited the site of an ancient pueblo that was a thriving community about 1,000 years ago. One of the most amazing sights at the pueblo was the ancient petroglyphs. They moved me--inexplicably--the way the sight of a breaching whale moves me. They expanded my consciousness and the sense of my place in the world.

I can relate to the human desire to leave a mark. Isn't that why I write, after all? To leave something behind that another human might see and relate to? 1,000 years ago I'd have been right there scratching my heart out in the dark rock. Today I scratch my heart out onto my keyboard, but the basic urge is the same.

Of course, as we were leaving, Len and I had to conjure up an alternate scenario, as we often do. We recreated an adoloscent indian coming home with rock dust on his arms and his mother asking suspiciously, "Where have you been, young man? Defacing public property again?? What have I told you about that? What will the neighbors and those crazy scratching of yours. We have to live here, you know..."

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Hiking Kendricks Mountain

The day after hiking Bill Williams Mountain, the weatherman promised it would be sunny and clear, 50 degrees and warm with no wind. It was the perfect day to tackle the second highest peak in the area: Kendricks Mountain.

In 2000, lightning ignited a devastating fire on the mountain that burned over the course of several months. The blackened, armless poles all over the ground and reaching into the sky were a tragic reminder of the violence of nature, but in an ironic twist, the lack of trees made for spectacular views. At the base of the mountain, there was almost no snow, but the higher we hiked, the more snow we encountered. At the open area just below the summit, the snow reached its deepest point--about five feet--as could be confirmed by the sign for the trailhead barely peeking out above the snow.

Hiking Kendricks Mountain, Part II

The cabin at the lower summit was used for years by a Ranger who lived there in the summer and kept a horse in a nearby cleared pasture. Every day he rode to the upper summit to spot for forest fires. How's that for an unusual job? The cabin was very small inside--not much bigger than my bathroom at home--and I opted to leave my pack there for the final assault to the upper summit which meant a half-a-mile climb up a 60 degree grade, through five+ feet of snow.

We were so tired by this time, having already hiked for five hours through treacherous, ever changing conditions, but we could see the summit and wanted it in the worst way, so we made the decision to go for it. (The last person to make the hike hadn't. We could tell because his tracks ended at the cabin. But clearly, he hadn't had snow shoes, and what had we lugged them all this way for, if not to make that ultimate peak? So we set out. And we made it.

The day was so clear and warm and beautiful! Such a change from the previous day at Bill Williams Mountain (which we could see in the distance)!Shoot, we could see all the way to the Grand Canyon from up there. It was amazing and gorgeous and breathtaking (and at 10,000 feet, breathtaking has a literal meaning, too). But since it was already 2PM, and we had a long trek down still ahead of us--and the promise of even more slippery slopes as the giant, diagonal drifts across the trail began to melt and give way--we took our pictures, savored our accomplish- ment, and began the long trek down. Just to give you a bit of perspective, that long snowy open area you see in the picture is just the trail to the cabin...there were still five hours down the mountainside to go before we reached the trailhead and our vehicle.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Kelly Spitzer kicked off her Writer Profile Project with Yours Truly. And you can read the interview here. Thanks Kelly!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Climbing Bill Williams Mountain

On the second day of our trip, we set out to hike Bill Williams Mountain. We were rested, well fed, happy to be away from cell phones and laptops, and generally psyched to get physical. In our pre-trip Internet research, this hike was billed as a moderate 2.75 mile hike. Cool, we thought. A few hours, we thought. Take it easy on the first day, we thought.

Well, we've hiked many trails and many mountains over the years, and this hike was not 2.75 miles. It was closer to four, which meant eight, round trip. Not so big of a deal if we had known, but there's a psychological element to hiking that is very important. I tell myself, "I'm almost there," based on the knowledge given, and I speed up and muscle to the top, exhilarated. I love that feeling of getting to the summit, sweaty and conquering. But if that last half-a-mile turns into two additional miles at a steep grade, well, let's just say I get a little cranky. The deep snow didn't help. As we neared the summit, the drifts were three feet deep in some places. And in Arizona (go figure!) they don't blaze the trails. So here's the thing: You pour a buttload of snow all over a mountaintop, and any trail pretty much vanishes.

Thankfully, some intrepid soul had been on this trail perhaps a week before and there were remnants of tracks to follow. Without those, we'd still be wandering around looking for the trail. Unfortunately, when we reached the 9,000 foot summit, we were in the midst of a snow squall. It made for cool conditions, to say the least, and almost zero visibility. But we took some lovely shots of trees against the sky. (Yes, it's blue above the trees--the snow clouds were around and below us, but not above.)

At the top, we broke out the stove we had rented from a Flagstaff outdoor store, hoping to make some hot drinks to fortify us for the trip down. (We have our own trusty equipment but you really can't fly with fuel canisters in your bag.) Unfortunately, we discovered that the store had sold us the wrong canister. It didn't fit the stove! (Yes, we should have checked.) More utter crankiness, especially from Len who really enjoys cooking in the cold. (And good thing we'd packed water instead of relying on melting snow!) So, we put away the stove and chewed our half-frozen Cliff very dark chocolate was like dusty pebbles, it was so cold. It didn't even melt in my mouth! I finally just swallowed the pebbles.

Then we left the summit, which wasn't all that fabulous, given that the view was clouds--oh, and six million dollars worth of communications equipment--towers, dishes, buildings--marring the summit. For the first part of the descent, I donned my snowshoes. I should have had them on before--my feet were wet and cold from slogging through the snow--but again, I kept thinking we were almost there...Anyway, at the bottom, it was like a different day. The sun was out, the snow was melted, and it was almost 50 degrees, and I was happy. I love mountains. And I love being done.

The Petrified Forest

I've wanted to visit the petrified forest for as long as I can remember. My grandfather kept a chunk of petrified wood on his desk until he died, and my grandmother kept it there afterwards. To give that some context, these were people who travelled all over the world, lived in India, Ethiopia, climbed the pyramids, rowed their VW bug across the Nile on a raft of sticks. They had seen many, many corners of the world, but the petrified forest always fascinated them, and so it fascinated me.

I always pictured the petrified forest as something that stood tall, perhaps like the great redwoods, frozen for eternity, but it's not that way at all. The trees date back to the triassic era, the time of Pangea, when all the continents were one large landmass. At that time, Arizona was actually a tropical swamp with 200 foot trees and alligator-like creatures. Those mammoth trees fell to the ground and were carried downstream until they reached a large open area where they came to rest and, instead of rotting, began to absorb mineral-rich water, flavored with volcanic ash. .
The trees were trapped under layers of sediment and hidden for millions of years. As North America shifted away from the other continents, her climate began to change and Arizona dried up. Over millennia, torrential desert rains eroded the sediments and the layers of volcanic ash, revealing the now-petrified trunks. As the ground beneath them washed away, the trees rolled down the sides of the crumbling mountains.

The area is both beautiful to look at and awe inspiring to contemplate. That such amazing and varied natural forces combined over millions of years to make a common thing, whose properties we have always taken for granted (i.e. wood is a relatively soft, saw-down-able thing), and turn that knowledge on its head...that wood could bejewel itself into stunning blues, oranges, purples, silvers and yellows...that these treasures could wait patiently for millions of years to make their debut...

Well, I find it all very mind-numbing. But I do have this illogical tendency toward mysticism where nature is concerned. And I am very much a "green" advocate...but something about seeing the grand scale of climate change that has always affected our planet was reassuring. The earth is a closed system--a giant organism, if you will, and I do believe that if we give her just a bit more help in terms of greenhouse gasses, pollution, etc, she will adapt. And humans will survive--or not--but Mother Earth will survive and continue her mysterious ways, regardless.