Friday, May 19, 2017

THIN SPOTS – Close Encounters With Eternity

Recently, the mother of my dear old friend, Charlie, died. She was an incredible woman, smart, civically engaged and, at 97, still living independently. As a minister—ordained when she was in her sixties—and someone with a life-long passion for music, it came as no surprise that she’d orchestrated much of her own beautiful memorial service.

Some time before her death, while discussing that eventuality with her minister,
she had noted some of the most important aspects of her own, personal spirituality. Among them was her belief that human beings—at least those of us open to the possibility—regularly encounter “thin spots” in the self-made barrier between our largely-mundane daily busy-ness and other, more transcendental realities.

She felt it was her job, as a minister, to encourage people’s awareness of those convergences, because, among other reasons, they are good places to find God.

          If I could choose between this state and 
          deep sleep, I’m not sure I could tell you 
          which I’d pick.

The other night, perhaps facilitated by that posthumous sermonette, I encountered one of those thin spots in my consciousness.

I’d already had a unique and memorable night. Unable to sleep for some reason—
I seldom have that problem—I’d been lying there, resting quite nicely, though acutely aware of my surroundings, my body, my thoughts. It wasn’t that anything in particular was on my mind, nor even that I was unable to turn off my thoughts;
I truly wasn’t thinking of much more than how amazingly comfortable I was, both physically and mentally.

Instead of any sense of urgency or frustration with not being able to sleep, I just felt utterly at peace. I remember thinking, If I could choose between this state and deep sleep, I’m not sure I could tell you which I’d pick.

Now, to be honest, I can’t say I might not have drifted briefly off to sleep now and then during the night, but it sure didn’t seem that way.

            A tear—a real, cool, liquid tear—
            rolled down my cheek.


Then, some time in the wee hours, I was suddenly aware of a presence. Not a flesh-and-blood presence, but a presence nonetheless. It was my dad. (In the 20 years since he died, I’ve had just one other significant connection with him, so I knew right away this was something special.)

We talked. I don’t remember saying anything out loud, but we talked. My “voice” felt real and true, and his…well, it seemed completely spontaneous, by all ap-
pearances his true voice, not one of my own creation.

So I asked Dad some of the questions I, because of both my reserve and his, had never thought to bring up while he was alive. “What were some of the high points of your life?” I asked. Without hesitation, he said, “You and your brother.” A tear—a real, cool, liquid tear—rolled down my cheek.

“Were you happy as an old man?” I asked. “You and mom seemed pretty detached by then, if not downright fed up with each other.” He replied, “Oh, you should have seen us when we were younger! When we got married, we were happy…and we were in love. Back then, we could talk, we laughed, we were affectionate...or as affectionate as conservative, German Americans could be (he winked)—we shared dreams…”

“Yeah, but were you happy during your final years, after you sold your homes and business?” I pushed. He thought for a few seconds. “I guess it was a different kind of happiness, the kind that comes from fulfilling a responsibility. Once I got your mom situated where I knew she’d be looked after, and sewed up some financial matters, I figured I’d fulfilled my purpose. I kind of let go.”

     In a kind of role reversal, I felt I’d taken 
     on the role of parent, and he was the child.

Dad and I talked for quite a while. I filled him in on my life since he passed away—during much of which he smiled and nodded knowingly, as if he already knew. I had to catch myself a couple of times running on about myself and tried to turn the conversation back to him. After all, I told him, this was about him.

He disagreed, but I guess that’s one reason this encounter was so amazingly special; in a kind of role reversal, I felt I’d taken on the role of parent, and he was the child.

I told him how proud of him I was…and am, and how much I love him. And how sorry I am that I wasn’t able to express that pride and love more overtly while he was still alive. In one of Dad’s patented responses—usually issued when the rare mention of love came up—he said simply, with that familiar, twinkly-eyed smile of his, “Ditto!”

Finally—I don’t know if I eventually did drift off to sleep or if it happened consciously—we said our good-byes. But not before I made him promise that he’d come back. He promised…and I’m waiting...

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


See the new series about my Peruvian Amazon River adventures at my travel blog, El Viajero Contento.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


Some people experience a special kind of bliss when they’re near the ocean. Others find this fulfillment from being in the mountains, or the forest or the desert…
I find my special joy of place on rivers.

I recall, as a boy, having a special fascination—along with tornadoes and the sinking of the Titanic—with the Amazon River. Stories, maps, photos, news reports—I couldn’t get enough of them. I dreamed of one day seeing the great river for myself.

PHOTO: Enrique Castro-Mendivil / Reuters

Well, I’ve been in a tornado; I’ve seen the Titanic—okay, I guess James Cameron's documentary footage will have to suffice; and now, at last, I’ll be fulfilling that final dream, being on the Amazon.

Tomorrow, I fly to Lima, where I’ll meet my brother, Dan, for the adventure of a lifetime. After a couple of days exploring the Peruvian capital, we fly for two hours northeast over the Andes to Iquitos, where we board La Perla, a 24-passenger river boat, for a week cruising the upper reaches of what is arguably the world’s largest and most important river. *

I’m not at all sure if I’ll have access to the Internet—I guess I’ll be disappointed if we end up no further from “civilization” than that—but I promise to journal and take lots of photos. I’ll look forward to producing a series of posts here about the experience. Stay tuned...


* Size of watershed: 7,000,000 square kilometers (more than double that of the Mississippi)
Length of river: 6,296 km, (second only to the Nile and 326 km longer than the Mississippi)
Discharge: 209,000 cubic meters per second (12 times that of the Mississippi)

There is another alphabet, whispering from every leaf, singing from every river, shimmering from every sky. ~ DEJAN STOJANOVIC

Friday, April 7, 2017

CHICKEN BUS TO PETATLAN – Plucking Away At My Own Joy

“Peta Peta Peta!” The young ayudante hangs nonchalantly out the clunky bus’s open door barking our destination to folks along Zihuatanejo’s bustling back streets. 

My compadre, Silverio, and my friend, Larry, have come down here to the southwestern Mexican state of Guerrero, Mexico from Minnesota to help me celebrate my birthday. And today we’ve hopped aboard the second-class “chicken” bus for the hour-long trip to Petatlán, a pueblo of 25,000 located 35 kilometers southeast of Zihuatanejo.

(Petatlán is best known for two things. Foremost is the Sanctuary of the Padre Jesús de Petatlán, a church less notable for its architecture than its display of a highly-revered statue depicting Christ collapsing under the weight of the Cross, steeped in legend about its mysterious discovery in the 16th century. The town’s other claim to fame is its busy handcrafted gold jewelry market.)

Among the first aboard the bus, the three of us spread out, grabbing the few precious seats with both unobstructed views and working windows.

Finally clearing Zihua’s maze of narrow streets, we head out into the countryside on federal highway 200. It’s hot, already in the upper 80s, and the constant humidity wafting in over La Costa Grande from the Pacific belies the tawny, dry-season hue of much of the landscape. It’s mostly just the irrigated commercial groves of coconut palm and mango that remain green this time of year.

By now a few more windows have been pried open and the moving air feels delicious. The ayudante, the fingers of one hand neatly interlaced with color-coded peso bills, totters down the swaying aisle collecting the 30-peso fare.

At the stop for Los Achotes, a few folks get off and a lovely young woman and her three-year-old daughter get on and sit down across the aisle from me. I say, “Hola, buenas tardes,” and both turn toward me with the kind of generous, open-hearted smiles I’ve come to associate with Mexicans.

Somehow, those smiles penetrate the corners of my consciousness, places I try
to keep open, but which too often evade the light of day. It’s as if all my petty concerns —boarding the right bus, having change for the fare, getting dropped off at the right stop, the quality of my Spanish, and making sure my buddies have a good time—simply evaporate.

  I feel completely comfortable, completely safe,  
  completely engaged, completely…well, complete.

Suddenly, I’m utterly in the moment, acutely aware of all my senses. I’m struck by the colors and textures of the bus’s gaudy interior, the passing scenery, the people’s clothing and skin; the happy, polka-like strains of  ranchero music the driver’s just cranked up; the smell of that slightly sweet, smoky, sweaty breeze.

I’m sitting there, turned slightly toward the aisle, one arm draped easily over the back of the adjacent seat, feeling sublimely relaxed. Here I am, I reflect, on the chicken bus to Petatlán, a shaky, noisy metal box with hard, lumpy seats and about enough leg room for a child.

And there’s absolutely no place on earth I’d rather be.

In the company of good friends, immersed in a culture I believe I’ve inhabited in a previous life, swept up in exactly the kind of adventure I so often dream of, I feel completely comfortable, completely safe, completely engaged, completely…well, complete.

I’m happy…very happy…maybe as happy as I’ve ever been!

I savor it as long as I can, but my reverie soon starts fraying at the edges, nibbled by other thoughts. As it unravels, I scan memory for other times I’ve experienced such quiet, certain joy; there have been, I regret to say, very few.

         As my guilt and my self-respect have this 
         nervous little dance, I wonder what kind 
         of a person I really am.

Now I’ve never been very good at preventing second thoughts from muddling first ones. And so the rest of the trip is tinged with guilt as I wonder how a man as blessed as I’ve been could possibly count a bus ride among his peak experiences.

For God’s sake, I’m thinking, you’ve been gifted with two amazing children and two grandchildren. You married an incredible woman who has enriched your life. You’ve been to  so many amazing places and so deeply bonded with Nature. You’ve seen loved ones face mortal challenges and survive. You’ve given and gotten so much love.

And yet you consider the simple, fleeting joy you’re experiencing on this bus to
be among the happiest moments of your life? Have I unmasked some kind of shallowness here…or am I just being honest and spontaneous?

As my guilt and my self-respect have this nervous little dance, I wonder what kind of a person I really am. Should I try to change which of my life experiences most tap into my soul? Or should I just accept that this is an authentic part of who I am—the kind of stuff I live for—even though I can barely avoid calling it selfish?

By the time we pull off onto the dusty bus stop at Petatlán, I’ve come to at least a tentative peace with my dilemma. In a kinder assessment of myself I realize that the joy I’ve just experienced in no way diminishes those other, perhaps weightier, gifts of life and love I’ve received.

I conclude that I can no more choose which of life’s experiences truly move me or bring me joy than I can which joke makes me laugh. No, I figure, those opportunities, those all-too-rare gifts of perfect presence, choose me.

And that’s just going to have to be okay.

So, as my friends and I start up the long steps to the church and zocalo, I turn and watch our bus pull away in a cloud of dust. I celebrate the few moments of precious clarity and centered-ness I’ve just enjoyed. And I chuckle to myself at the thought of my plucking, clucking little self doubts…still on that bus.

Friday, March 31, 2017

MARAVILLAS PEQUENAS 9 – Small Wonders, Mexican Style

One too many mescals for Raggedy Andy.

Blue agave leaves. An impression.

Don't piss here, you bastards!

An artisan beads a fine Huichol mask.

He couldn't be...not in the bucket!

The heroic pescador by the fish market

A man whose story I'd like to hear – Petatlán

Padre Jesús de Petatlán

Croton – Codiaeum variegatum

Santuario Nacional del Santo Señor de Petatlán

Roseate spoonbills nesting at Playa Linda

Behind bars – Building the new Kau Kan Kondos

Wood storks at Playa Linda

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

MARAVILLAS PEQUENAS 8 – Small Wonders, Mexican Style

Tinaco, angel and green

Termite trunk highway

Emiliano Zapata?

Iguana hold your hand!

Got crackers?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

MARAVILLAS PEQUENAS 7 – Small Wonders, Mexican Style

A few shots from our visit to El Refugio de Potosí in La Barra de Potosí, Guerrero, Mexico.

Sperm whale skeleton

Papagaio bathing


Frangipani flowers


Green iguana

Los Morros from El Refugio de Potosí