Indian Summer

dog susie

I remember my dog just couldn’t stop jumping all over me. We had spent the whole summer together, wandering down by the creek, splashing in the water or exploring the bank, crawling through the hideout some boys had made in the bamboo thicket, or joining my father in the orchard as the fruit – apricots and nectarines – were harvested. Sometimes we’d jump into his pickup to drive downtown for an ice cream sundae at the local ice creamery.

We might stop in at my uncle’s hardware store next door and “shoot the breeze.” I loved the hardware store smell of the place, the large-planked wooden floor and display tables crowded with hammers and tools and gadgets.

“Hi Bob,” other farmers would call to my father. And, “My, hasn’t she grown,” referring to me.

The summer was endless – delicious hot weather, cool times in the shade leaning back against the trunk of an orchard tree, bike riding along the canal where I once watched some boys weave a garter snake into their spokes and wanted to kill them. And always Susie was with me, tongue hanging out as she ran along side, my partner in adventure and fun.

Then I disappeared from her life: I went back to school. Oh, how I missed her, and she missed me. How she wandered around sniffing all over – in the sheds out back, in the tangle of ivy beneath the water tank, inside the chicken coop – or as close as she could get to inside – and all over the ranch. My father told me she barked insistently at him, demanding to know where I was.

But I was at school, harnessed again into a schedule of bells and lessons and recesses. I squirmed in my new dress and too tight shoes and longed to be in my tie-top, shorts and sandals, roaming free with my dog in the countryside. I worried about Susie – Would she miss me? Would she think I’d abandoned her?

When I got off the school bus after that first day in fourth grade, Susie came racing up to me. I don’t know how she knew where I was or when I would be there – and she knew she wasn’t supposed to cross the road – but there she was, and jumping all over me.  We ran and skipped all the way home, both of us overjoyed with each other.

“What in the world happened to your new dress?” Mother asked when I came into the kitchen, screen door slamming behind me.

I looked down to see a big tear in my new fall skirt.  “Oh,” I said, “ I’m sorry. I think Susie got a little carried away when she saw me.”

I expected Mommy to be disappointed, but she just smiled. “Change into your play clothes now and run outside. Susie has been driving your father crazy all day. And don’t slam the screen.”

I changed quickly and I rushed outside to play with my dog. “Want to go down to the creek, Susie?” I asked as the screen door slammed.


Indian Summer was just beginning.

Meeting the Buddha in Sedona

buddha in sedona

My husband was lying in the hospital bed, dying. It wasn’t as if I should be surprised—he had been in and out of hospitals many times that year, suffering from complications of multiple sclerosis. Yet, I was. I was in shock.

I had been his caregiver for the last ten years, and now, at the time of his death on January 1, 2006, I couldn’t stop. I still had to take care of him. Less than a minute after he drew his last breath, I began reading a Tibetan Phowa, or prayer, to Amatabha Buddha to guide Michael’s transition. It was a long and beautiful poem that guided him as he experienced the stages of death and the many levels of transition. Amitabha is a Sanskrit word that literally means boundless light and boundless life. He is the Buddha in the Land of Ultimate Bliss (Pure Land), in which all beings enjoy unbounded happiness. He can provide a “short cut” to enlightenment. By reading this phowa, I felt still connected to Michael, still able to care for him.

Nearly six years after my husband’s death, I hardly expected to meet Amatabha Buddha again in Sedona, Arizona, and this was not the only surprising thing that happened there.

It was my first time in Sedona, and I immediately felt a resonance with the red rock monuments that surrounded the city, the fresh, pure air, and the inexplicable otherworldliness of the place. A bit skeptical about the fabled vortex sites, I decided to experience one on my own. The most accessible was just off a road that ended at the city’s small airport, conveniently called Airport Vortex. I parked my rental car and followed a red earthen trail that led me up and around an area between two red peaks. Below was a view of the green dotted valley with more red rock cliffs in the distance. After following the trail a short way, I sat down just off the path and began to meditate, opening myself to my surroundings. After a few moments, I was surprised to feel a tug at my heart and a deep and sensory connection to the energy emanating around me. I sat transfixed until the persistent pull began to overwhelm me, and I reluctantly got up and followed the trail back to my car. For me, the vortex energy was real.

And it wasn’t only when near a vortex that I felt the magic pull of Sedona. For most of my stay, I was mesmerized by the vividly blue sky that offset the towering rocks, with their strata of rusty red—caused by the presence of oxidized iron—and their lighter strata of pale limestone. When it rained, the dark clouds changed the sky into dramatic silver gray, and, as sunlight broke through, it cast a golden light on the rock formations. I was mesmerized by the drama of the scene constantly changing before my eyes as the play of light and dark unfolded.

In my hotel room one day, when the prevailing sunshine again transformed my surroundings with clear blue skies and puffy white clouds, I discovered a postcard for an Amatabha Buddha Stupa, or spiritual monument. It was only a short distance away. The local Tibetan Buddhist community, I read, had built this Stupa as a special sanctuary in a red rock area west of the historic uptown. I had to go there.

As I hiked up the short trail from my car to the Stupa, I was excited to discover what I would find there. Suddenly, rounding a bend, I came across a large, tall red structure with a sculpture of Amatabha Buddha encased near its top. I was the only one there, and I followed the posted suggestion to walk three times clockwise around the Stupa. As I did so, I prayed for Michael’s and my own continuing growth and happiness and happiness for all sentient beings. I felt a strong connection to Michael and to the serene beauty of this special place. Later, as I sat in meditation, it came to me that I must travel to Tibet. Not really overjoyed by the prospect of such a long journey, I nevertheless knew that one day I would make this pilgrimage.

The Buddha was still with me when I went on a Pink Jeep tour to the canyon lands and the site of Palatki ruins. (Pink Jeep tours start from the historic uptown section of Sedona and take visitors to an array of off-road destinations.) Ancient Native American cliff dwellers built homes in the red rocks and inscribed them with their mysterious petroglyphs. They lived in the area from 900 to 1,000 years ago, until the 1300s when they disappeared. I appreciated our guide’s knowledge of the area—for instance, he spoke of the Spanish explorers who arrived about 1583 in search of silver and gold. They named these vanished native peoples the Sinaquans, which means “without water.” Indeed, water was a precious commodity, and they were extremely resourceful, using urine for liquid and feces for glue in the preparation of their red bricks and mortar. Our guide also pointed out many petroglyphs that I would not have noticed had he not told me where to look. Among the marking was one that stood out for me above all others: a spiral drawn in white. The spiral—considered by many as a symbol of the cycles of life—reminded me of Amatabha Buddha, the circles I had made around his Stupa, and the spiral of life and death that was honored in the phowa I had read at Michael’s passing. I felt a sudden connection to this ancient community of people who worked so hard to live and thrive in this arid and beautiful setting.

When it came time to go home, I left Sedona reluctantly. It had been a place of surprising synchronicity for me, a reminder of the sacred cycle of life and death. I found connections to ancient peoples, energies and sacred traditions that renewed my desire to live more respectfully in the world, conscious of the transitory nature of life and beauty and the universality of human experience.

New Life in the Yucatan

new life in the yucatan

When my husband, Michael, died on January 1st, 2006, I felt as if I had died, too. The light went out of my life. It was as if I were a candle and he were the flame, and his last breath had blown out that flame and left me alone in the dark.

Yet, for some reason unfathomable to me, my life went on, though I saw no reason why it should. No longer able to make sense of my world, I began to rely more and more on my intuition.

A little over a year after his death, in March of 2007, I was sitting on my living room couch, reading my copy of Spirituality & Health magazine. Suddenly, an announcement for a workshop on travel writing jumped off the page. I’d always loved to write and to travel, and here was a way I could do both. The workshop was to be held in the beautiful but “undiscovered” southern Yucatan peninsula in Mexico near Belize. There was no reason in the world why I shouldn’t go, I thought to myself. Did I dare? Did I have the energy? Probably not, I decided. This was crazy.

I put the idea aside, yet it would not disappear. My intuition kept urging me on. For all I knew, the workshop was already filled. But the magazine had just arrived in the mail; maybe there was a chance. Maybe this would be the way to pull myself out of my grief and start to live again.

As it turned out, I was accepted into the workshop. Boarding the plane that would take me from Oakland, California, to the airport in Cancun, I felt a new sense of possibility. Maybe this was the way I could create new meaning in my life.

During the four-hour van ride from Cancun to Rancho Encantado, our eco-resort destination, I was sure I had made a mistake. What in the world was I doing stuck in a crowded van with a bunch of strangers, riding on a desolate highway through the Mexican jungle? Had my intuition failed me?

But my roommate proved to be delightful, the travels to ancient Maya ruins adventuresome, and the travel writing lessons and loving guidance of Judith Fein, our Mother Superior of teachers, a blessing. Above all, I was captivated by Laguna Bacalar. All doubts disappeared that first morning when I saw the lagoon sparkling just beyond the porch of my cozy, thatched roof casita. Its beauty blew my mind and its purity opened my heart.

This 70 kilometer, fresh-water lagoon is cradled by pure, white limestone and fed by underground springs and rivers. Gazing out on this clear body of water, held sacred by the ancient Maya peoples, I felt at one with nature in all its variety and soulful depth. It was worth the whole trip just to swim in its waters.

On the third day, I took a sail boat ride for a tour of this magical lake. The day was bright, humid and warm. As the sun traveled through the pure blue sky, puffy white clouds interspersed with grey cloud shadings lent a dramatic dimensionality to the scene around me. The lagoon’s colors were a plethora of shades and tones of blue, ranging from transparent light turquoise in the shallows to varying hues of aqua marine, Dutch blue, emerald green and ink blue/black in its deepest depths. The ancient May aptly called this lagoon “The Lake of Seven Colors.” This multiplicity of color constantly varied as my boat glided silently through the rippling waters, creating a wake of small, white bubbles that danced on the azure surface like bubbles topping a glass of champagne.

The cooling breeze smoothed my bare skin as we sailed over the lagoon’s surface, and I felt blessed by the bounty of nature laid out before me. I experienced what I can only name as reverence, perhaps as the ancient Maya had. They had held this lake sacred and had protected it with their respectful ways. I learned that they always asked permission to enter the jungle and gratefully took only what they needed from nature.

I realized that I loved this lake, and with this thought, I felt the presence of love returning to my life. Perhaps I could learn to love myself as Michael had loved me and learn to take care of myself as I had taken care of him and as the Maya had cared for this lake.

My mind turned back to the death of my husband and my always present awareness of the impermanence of life; at best, the things and people we hold most dear are only ours for a while. I wondered: Would this beautiful body of water continue sparkling in all its purity, or would it fall prey to the thoughtlessness of modern civilization? Did the native peoples and growing number of expatriates now populating this area have the same regard for nature as did the ancient Maya?

I found that, indeed, many did. There was a growing movement to protect this delicate ecosystem, both by modern Mayas returning to ancient ways and by newcomers becoming ecologically active. There was a growing movement to limit unwise development and to prevent the commercial exploitation that had invaded Cancun.

I humbly called upon the ancient Gods and Goddesses of the Maya ancestors to bless this action. And I hoped that others would honor the wonders of this lake through writing, as I hoped to do, so its beauty could be shared.

My husband, Michael, had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis ten years before his death. He went from being a healthy, vital and athletic man to becoming a prisoner in a wheelchair. Although this is not the path of many people with MS, it was his path.

We had been extremely close before his diagnosis, living, sharing and traveling together, sharing life’s inevitable ups and down and always coming out enjoying or surviving them with renewed commitment. MS was our biggest challenge, and we faced it together.

Being a caregiver adds a whole new dimension to being a wife. Many times this new and unaccustomed role became my identity, and I felt consumed by it. Yet our love grew to levels it never could have reached in any other way. The passion and intensity of our early days gave way to a mutual compassion and commitment that transcended anything I could ever have imagined. It wasn’t an easy path, but it was one of transformation for both of us.

Since his diagnosis eleven years prior to this trip to the Yucatan, I had kept detailed journals of my life with Michael, our struggle with this disease, and my grief following his death. Over this last year, the idea of turning my journal writings into a memoir that might help and inspire others had occurred to me many times.

Now, contemplating the beauty and inevitable impermanence of Laguna Bacalar, I felt called upon to write and publish this memoir. I realized that I cannot hold on to the ephemeral, but I can honor my memories through writing and sharing with others. All life is transitory, but there is something eternal that transcends mortality. Laguna Bacalar had given me a glimpse of this transcendent force. Perhaps I could touch that, too, in my writings.

My intuition had served me well, and as I headed for home I felt renewed and inspired. During the course of this travel writing workshop, I had found new motivation and direction for my life, and I had come to realize that life itself is a trip—uncharted travel to destinations unknown.