I just spent a beautiful week at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California with 140 fellow writers and five generous and gifted teachers.  It was a great week!  We laughed a lot, wrote a bit, and ate a lot of damn good food.  And yes, I did soak naked in the hot tubs with strangers - it's just what you do there.  I highly recommend a visit to Esalen, a visit with the healers that work there, and books by any of these wonderful authors:  Cheryl Strayed, Alan Heathcock, Samantha Dunn, Steve Almond, & Pam Houston.  Here's a little taste of writing inspired by a prompt from Sam:

Change  is inescapable.  You must embrace change with equal parts fervent hope and resignation like an ancient tree, for example — without clinging to those parts of yourself that are falling away like leaves.  I mean change must be your entire existence.

I look forward to rounding out some of the work started this week but for now I'm off to Austria.

The Subway Ride

I rode next to an old man on the subway today.  Space is tight and I sat on the frayed edge of his blue jacket.  He held a book in his hands, it was closed with one index finger marking his place.  His hands were sprinkled with age spots as if someone had dusted them with cinnamon and his white hair sprung out in all directions from the crown of his head like a halo of carefree clouds.   The cover of the book was wrapped in old magazine pages carefully taped at the seams - the print worn off in patches.  When he opened the book I realized it was a bible - the pages whisper soft and creased like old tissue paper.  He would read for a few seconds, Psalms I believe, and then close the cover and his eyes for a few moments.  A juggler caught both of our attention.  He was halfway down the car bouncing three, five, then six balls off the ceiling - it made us both chuckle and the old man softly said something about practice under his breath.  We each pulled a few coins out, his from an old film canister in the pocket of his coat.  He slid the bible into a worn black briefcase that sat at his feet and pulled out an ad from the newspaper - it was for a shoe sale.  He checked it carefully, refolded it, and placed it in the pocket with the film canister.  Next, he retrieved a packet of papers and began to study them closely.  They were tucked into a clear plastic sleeve.  Near the bottom of the stack the papers were yellowed and the edges marked with folds and tiny tears.  The top sheet was fresh graph paper.  Stapled to the upper right corner was an aged rectangle of paper with a math equation several lines long and obviously typed on an old typewriter.  The fresh sheet of graph paper was crisscrossed with equations written in pencil. A puzzle, in the works for a few decades at least.  When he rose to exit the train, I noticed that his shoulders stooped forward like an autumn leaf curling into itself before blowing away in the wind.  His steps were certain but slow.  I wondered if his wife was at home, tending a pot of softly bubbling stew, and waiting to see his new shoes or if he would return to his apartment and place his new shoes in a half empty closet before settling in to work on the decades old puzzle.  I watched him slowly crossing the platform as the subway pulled away.

To choose pain or love?

I keep waking up in the mornings with thoughts running through my mind about love, pain, friendship, family and life.  The thoughts haven’t surfaced in an organized manner and I find all of these ideas to be evolving and a bit of a work in progress but here goes:

Being in relation to others is maybe the hardest thing about being human - it also has the potential to be the most beautiful and fulfilling.  It is through relationships that we experience the highest highs and the lowest lows especially within the most sacred of relationships - parent and child, life partners, spouses, and close friends.  These relationships can flourish or they can die. I believe it’s in the way we choose to relate to our shared experiences that determines how relationships evolve.  I’m talking about the experiences we are currently living, the ones we have lived, and the ones we imagine are coming.  I believe that we have a bit of a choice in the way our relationships evolve.  A choice that has to do with how we relate to our past, engage in the present moment, and what we believe about those walking beside us.  A choice based on where we put our focus and what we choose to hold close to our hearts. 

Close your eyes and take a deep breath, open a space and then think about this…  

I believe that relationships die when we choose to live in a place of lasting pain.  I believe that lasting pain is perpetuated through the repetition or reliving of memories and stories that we tell ourselves.  This constant revisiting of painful moments is a choice.  A choice that for some reason we humans can’t seem to avoid.  We find it necessary to relive our greatest failures or the greatest hurts that we believe others have visited upon us.  It’s a little bit like pushing on a bruise over and over just to see if it’s still there and if it still hurts.  This allows us to be victims.  It allows us to not take responsibility for how we treat others and it allows us to dishonor our relationships.  It allows us to rationalize the anger, hate, and hurt that we put out into the world.  In other words - reliving past pain means we are keeping it alive and creating new pain each and every day. 

I believe we can choose a different path - a path away from lasting pain towards lasting love.  It’s a path rooted in acceptance and forgiveness.  It’s about accepting what was and what is without passing judgement.  It’s also about accepting those that walk beside us as whole human beings.  Whole people made up of light and dark, strong and weak, beautiful and terrifying.  What if we could accept ourselves and others as imperfect?  What if we could accept that we each have our own issues, demons, and things that have shaped our souls?  I think that it’s an amazing gift that we can live through each others great glories and great failures.  I think it’s important to openly witness the good and the bad in each other.  This witnessing without judgement is simply a lesson in what it means to be human.  It allows us to understand that life is not about being perfect just as it is not about being imperfect.  It is about not losing hope or faith in ourselves and each other when we are not our best selves.  It is about acceptance.  It is about forgiveness. It is about hope.

What if we stop counting the wrongs and start counting the rights?  What if we stop reliving every rough moment that has popped up in this life?  What if we stop pointing out each others greatest failures?  What if we stop being afraid of each others dark?  What if we stop looking backwards and projecting our fear into the future?  I believe we can choose to not judge each others dark moments or perceived failures.  I believe we can choose to honor our strengths and our light and to do the same for those around us.  I believe we can choose to believe that each of us is trying our best.  I believe that we can choose to forgive and embrace ourselves and those around us.

I believe all of this takes great courage.  The courage to love ourselves as whole people and the courage to love those around us as whole people.  I think each of us can choose to see, accept and love through whatever arises.  Please understand that I am not saying we should allow others to mistreat us but I do believe we can face these challenges with compassion.  I think we can choose what is healthy for ourselves without placing judgement, shaming, or becoming self righteousness.  We are each no better or worse - more right or wrong than the person walking beside us.  In each moment we are each simply choosing to “see, acknowledge, and forgive” or to “see, judge, and hate”.  We each have a choice whether we come into relationship from a place of grace and love or a place of anger and hate.  In every moment and in every interaction we have a choice.  

I believe that in order to be fully alive we have to experience all that life has to offer.  I think that our most joyful moments are as important as our most painful.  It is how we learn and grow.  It is how we break open so that we can experience life more fully - so that we can evolve.  I believe we all need to work hard to stay in the present moment and not journey backwards into our pain and not project fear about the future.  I believe we can all choose compassion, forgiveness, and love.  I believe we can end our cycles of pain if we so choose.  What will you choose?

Long overdue...

I've gotten a lot of notes lately along the lines of "Utz, WTF have you been up to?"  So here's a brief rundown of the last few months.

I left Vietnam in late March to surprise my grandpa for his 90th birthday and to meet my new nephew, Henry.  Plans for the visit solidified in late January but I had to keep things under wraps so that I could get into town without folks finding out.  It was pretty fun to sneak up on people that first week home.  There was a lot of swearing, crying and bear hugs. I will not soon forget my brother carrying me from his front door straight into the nursery and introducing me to Henry - he didn’t even realize he was carrying me until we watched the video later.  Or my grandpa’s first words when I appeared next to him at the Inn “You little shit!”.  Or the fact that my mom didn’t recognize me when I interrupted her dinner at a local restaurant because in her mind it couldn’t possibly be me - I had just posted a few hours before that I was in Vietnam (really I was in Vancouver waiting for my flight to Portland).   I will always carry those moments close to my heart - I do love my people. 

Grandpa’s party was a great success - full of laughs, old friend and inappropriate stories - as can always be expected where he’s involved.  The two weeks passed - full of slumber parties with my girls, playtime with my growing circle of nieces and nephews, favorite foods, snuggles with Jack, bonding with Henry and enjoying spring in Oregon.  There was also a lot of work to do.  My amazing parents took time out of their busy schedule to help me move all of my belongings into a storage unit so that I can get my house sold.  The time flew by and pretty soon I was packing, getting the travel wiggles and saying my goodbyes.  And on my second to last day at home, before heading to Argentina for two months, I ended up in the emergency room.

The pain started around noon.  By five in the evening I was driving myself to the hospital.  Not really the best choice I’ve ever made considering the pain level - I was crying, trying not to vomit and having to remind myself to breathe.  It took the doctors seven days, two CT scans, one ultrasound, and a shitload of poking around my abdomen to figure out what was up.  Those seven days were pretty scary - the pain would come in waves - sometimes leaving me doubled over, fighting for breath, and unable to speak, walk, or even think.  Finally on day seven - after having missed my original flight - they confirmed that I had a kidney stone lodged somewhere between my kidney and my bladder.  I have never hated anything so tiny so much.  I had to reschedule my flight again.  I had to have surgery.  I had to take heavy duty pain meds for a week just so that I could pee without passing out.  Thank God I was home when that little fucker decided to start it’s journey.  The extra time allowed me more snuggles with Henry and I loved those moments!  Finally, after five weeks at home, I was ready to hit the road.  I packed again, said my goodbyes again, and took off for Argentina - still a little nervous about the possibility of complications from my surgery.

So what have I been doing here in Argentina these last four and a half weeks?

I was able to come to Buenos Aires based on the kindness of my friend Christina.  She and I spent several weeks together in Rishikesh in November doing yoga, sharing stories, and taking long walks.  Not only did this beautiful and amazing woman leave me her down jacket and lined boots so that I could survive the cold mornings in the foothills of the Himalayas in December but she also offered me her beautiful apartment here in BA.  And it is beautiful, light filled, comfortable, and located in a cool, old, funky neighborhood - San Telmo.

My time in BA has been pretty different from the rest of my trip.  First of all I’m staying put - no hitting the road every few weeks in search of a new adventure.  I’m settled into a pretty regular schedule that feels a little bit like having a job - there’s even homework!  I’m taking Spanish classes while here - four hours a day - five days a week.  It’s slow going but I’m finally able to make my way around town and have somewhat coherent conversations with my teachers.  The school is full of great people - teachers and fellow travelers alike.  There have been a lot of laughs as we students stumble our way through a new language.  Just last week a girl in my class announced that she lived in a brothel, had a pimp and liked orgies.  No joke.  She was trying to say she rented a room in an apartment, had a landlord and liked to have parties with her friends.  Needless to say - my laugh is now famous in the halls at school.  I also spend several hours a week keeping up my yoga practice in preparation for my yoga teacher training that’s coming up in July.  These past few weeks have helped me focus a bit more on what’s to come after my trip.  I even submitted my application for grad school - something I’ve been contemplating for quite some time.  I’m excited and curious to see how that unfolds.  

I spend my evenings and weekends exploring the neighborhoods and sights around BA.  The city does have quite a reputation for petty crime so I don’t carry my camera very often.  I have been able to capture some of the culture and there are a few photos posted so you can get a feel for the city.  I’m hoping to sneak up to Uruguay this weekend and may have a chance to spend a few days in Mendoza.  I’m headed home in a few weeks for a writing workshop at Esalen and to swap out my clothes before heading to Austria.  There is a lot to look forward to in the next few months.  

I’m hoping to get a post pulled together about the food here so stay tuned for that…  Sorry for the long radio silence!  Much love.


The whirlwind month...

I've been on a bit of a whirlwind travel schedule this last month (at least for me).  I prefer to settle into the places I visit and soak them in.  This past month, however, has been a bit of a burner as I move quickly to get a broad (rather than deep) taste of SE Asia before heading on to South America.  In the past thirty days I've travelled through Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap, Saigon and Hue.  I've recovered from a two month long bout of bronchitis, had food poisoning twice,  visited the emergency room once and medical clinics a few times.  I made it part of the way through a 10 day silent meditation retreat - one that you promise and swear and promise again that you won't leave early.  I did, I had to make a hard choice based on my health.  I have missed home and my people more in the last month than I have the entire eight months that I've been on the road.

But here's the thing about the last month - it has been deeply rewarding in a way that might be hard to explain - full of big lessons and important reminders.  Reminders about the importance of connection, letting go of expectations and achievement and being in the moment.  Most importantly, I became an Aunt to Henry.  I haven't gotten to meet him yet but he has already changed the landscape of my heart - it just feels bigger somehow.  I dream about holding him sometimes and on those mornings I wake up smiling.  I have been reminded these last few days that it's ok and sometimes necessary to rely on the kindness of strangers.  Tu, one of the innkeepers at my guesthouse, has made me soup for lunch the last two days using the families personal kitchen.  When I paid my bill this morning I noticed that they hadn't charged me for this kindness.  It is humbling and so very good to be cared for by someone you have just met.  

I've been reminded that life rarely, if ever, turns out the way you have envisioned, planned or want it to - and it doesn't matter how hard you want it.  Instead, it unfolds as it should - beautifully - offering up each lesson like a gift - even the lessons we may not want to learn.  I've had to work through the lesson (again) that broken commitments don't always signal failure - they signal a willingness to work softly and openly with what has arisen in the current moment - regardless of what you committed to three days, three months or three years ago.  I'm not saying it's not important to honor and work through challenges that arise surrounding the promises we make to ourselves and others.  But to do so blindly - from a place of "have to" and "should" instead of gracefully taking in the whole current picture doesn't serve anyone's best interest.  Most importantly with this one - I can always, always start again.

In missing home these last several weeks I have had to remember patience and the importance of being able soothe myself during hard times.  That's not to say there haven't been a few teary calls home.  My parents are rock stars - hands down - the most supportive, graceful and encouraging you could ever want or need.  But it's been the moments where I've remembered to be kind to myself, to slow down, breathe deeply and just laugh at myself that have taught me the most.  Like the other day when I stood up on a chair to latch the window, hit my head on the wall mounted TV and then watched, in horror, as it crashed onto the marble floor.  It has simply been - just one of those months.

I've heard it said that when you travel solo the highs are really high and the lows are really low.  Yep - I concur.  This month has held it all.  I have seen some of the most beautiful scenery of my entire trip these last few weeks.  I've made strong connections with new friends.  I have grown - which (as I keep saying) is the whole reason I'm here.  And everytime I hit a rough moment and opened my laptop to change my a ticket home, because I have - several times in fact - I have closed it again - taken a deep breath, opened the door and taken a step into the moment.  This journey is not over yet and I'm embracing it.  Even the rough patches - maybe those especially...