I slowly let go of the top strap of my backpack. It settled gently on the rock below me and then slowly tilted forward and off it fell into space. Whoops. I watched in humor and horror as it careened off boulders, gaining speed as it went tumbling and bouncing down the mountain side. Quite beautiful actually. Then thwack it crashed into a group of mature hemlock and became still. My friend John’s head instantly popped out from behind the trees with a frightened and quizzical look on his face. Sorry John, whew that was close.
And so go our lives. We carry forth the momentum of the past boldly and (usually) unconsciously into the present. At times we careen off each other, while at other times we settle down gently like I had thought my bag was going to do. Sometimes we need a group of sturdy trees to stop us, which allows the opportunity to contemplate what we are doing and where this momentum is taking us. Other times we need the courage to let go and see where all the tumbling will lead. It can be important to build up enough momentum to overcome the all-too pervasive inertia in our lives. I have often thought that this force was something that you always wanted to build in life. But momentum is not always a good thing, especially when we follow it blindly. The momentum of the past, forged as habits and neuroses, becomes this person we think we are and this life we believe is under our control. Momentum is not a straight-forward thing. And it’s not as simple as the dichotomy I am presenting here. Without acknowledging momentum’s role along with a healthy dose of mindfulness, we may simply be backpacks tumbling down a mountainside. Some will come to rest against a tree while others will fly off into the abyss.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.
~ Marcel Proust
The value of the dwelling is in the dweller.
~ Moroccan Proverb
Nostalgia is funny isn’t it? Sometimes you know exactly why you are feeling it but other times, like right now for me, you simply cannot point to its cause. I am feeling nostalgic for Morocco and because of that feeling I have been looking back at old photographs and even went journal diving. Perhaps I am feeling this way because Kristin and I were discussing the ways in which living in Morocco changed our lives. We know that it changed things for us but we are having difficulty pinpointing exactly what and how. The changes have been both subtle (hence the difficulty defining them) and profound (life changing so to speak). My nostalgia led me to re-reading journal entries from this time seven years ago and to re-assessing some of the impacts of our service as Peace Corps volunteers. I am not prone to thoughts of grandeur, particularly about our time in Morocco. I have generally felt that our biggest impact was through the friendships that we made (which is absolutely true) and that we made minimal impact through our work (not necessarily true as you will see through this story). The mission of the Peace Corps is, after all, to spread world peace and friendship. This is best accomplished by sharing in other people’s lives, their marriages, births, deaths and celebrations and by sharing yours. We were overwhelmingly successful in doing this in Morocco and it all begins by saying hello (salam u walekum in Arabic) and yes to invitations to tea. This transformative story begins with hello and invitation to tea.
I wrote the journal entry below seven years ago, almost to the date. Diving into this journal, I did not know what I would find and it ended up being perfect. Not only do I want to take you there (back for some of you who followed our adventures when we were there) but I also want to introduce you to an incredible Moroccan woman. Her name is Rabha Akkaoui and she is a remarkable person, all the more so because she lives in a country and within a culture that oppresses women (although certainly not to the degree that other countries like Saudi Arabia do). This journal entry describes the day when we first met her and her family, who were to become good friends of ours. Her story is one of kindness, courage, and determination. Our story is interconnected with hers, one that is still unfolding today. I will begin with an entry straight out of my journal and then tell you more about Rabha and what she is doing today. It’s quite extraordinary.
Moonrise over Jbel Maasker. The entrance to the cave can be seen in the middle right as a small dark spot.
October 22, 2007 – With our friend and translator Aziz, we went hiking up to the cave at the base of the mountain named Jbel (mtn) Maasker (10,800 ft). We spent most of the afternoon up there. The weather was beautiful – sunny and clear. Jbel Ayachi (12,000+ ft) lay snow-capped and brilliant to the northeast of us, Maasker loomed silent and gigantic (due to its close proximity) to our south, and mountains upon mountains lay in all other directions.
We ate a snack of apples, pomegranates, walnuts and chocolate in the cave. The grotto is large enough to hold a shepherd and his flocks of sheep, which apparently happens often enough for the floor to be littered with little sheep pellets. Kristin and Aziz then climbed up through the arch formed from a fallen in roof of an adjacent cave roof, while I hiked up a valley to the south and around the backside of the fallen in cave. Clambering up some rock outcrops afforded me a view in all directions. Two huge mountains loomed nearby while other smaller mountains, upon and beyond other mountains were intertwined with pastoral valleys, where the villages lie. Wow, we are so lucky to be here!
On our way back down, we stopped in at a house upon the insistent invitation of one of the inhabitants. We had been invited in during previous hikes in this area and so today we felt compelled to say yes, despite the late hour. I am so glad that we did because it was a truly delicious and sustaining snack of mint tea, scrambled eggs (from their chickens) and a tasty concoction of honey, oil and udi (butter made from sour milk). The company was equally delicious. There were two older parents, Rabha (a thirty-something woman who is unmarried and incredibly friendly and warm), and her younger brother Abdullah, who has Down’s syndrome. They built the beautifully simple, one-room mud house two years ago, when they moved out of town and up from Tounfite. They have ten hectares (approximately 25 acres), which I think they rent out for farming (we saw wooden plows being pulled across the rocky ground by a team of two mules). On the downhill side they are building another one-room mud house that will be embedded in the ground in order to increase thermal insulation. Great idea at 7,000 feet! Feeling refreshed and invigorated by the wonderful food, we followed Rabha to a nearby stream where we were delighted to see a small gorge and no less than three waterfalls. Wonderful!
As the sun was beginning to set, we bid our farewells to our new friends and thanked them profusely for their hospitality, which we were beginning to realize is typical of the Amazigh (Berber) people. With the moon rising above Maasker, we began our couple hour trek back down to the hidden valley in which lies our new home, Tounfite. The light was spectacular on both Maasker and Ayachi and all the beautiful ground in between. As it grew darker and darker, we passed by several people who had been in town all day and were heading home. Two of the passersby stopped us to inquire into whether we had seen their lost cow or not. We replied that we had not and wished them luck in their search. Moments like this remind me of the very different world in which I am now living. We are not in Kansas anymore as the expression goes. No, no, in fact we are very much in Morocco and happy to be so. And days like this delight my soul, make my spirit soar, and remind me of how grateful I am to be alive, here and now.
The cave outside of Tounfite, Morocco. Aziz and I (left) taking a break in the cave with the mouth of the arched, fallen-in cave seen in the background. Aziz (right), after climbing up through the arch, is thankful either for being in such a beautiful place or not dying after a harrowing climb.
Let us continue with Rabha’s story. We continued to hike in that area and became friends with Rabha and her family. They also had a house in town, which allowed the kids to attend high school without having to walk for hours to reach town, so Rabha and her family would visit us as well. We quickly learned that she was a skilled weaver of traditional Amazigh rugs and that she was getting paid very little to do so. This didn’t seem right to us as we thought that she ought to get compensated fully for her skill and her effort. A seed was planted within us. Being volunteers in the Environment Program with the Peace Corps, we did not feel qualified to help develop small businesses for people like Rabha and others who were yearning to develop themselves and their community. The seed that was planted within us we replanted by requesting that Peace Corps place a Small-business Development volunteer in Tounfite. This seed and the subsequent hard-work and success of several Small-business Development volunteers has resulted in amazing things for Rabha and other artisans from the greater Tounfite area (and across Morocco). Another former Peace Corps Volunteer, Dan Driscoll, started a website called Anou – Beyond Fair Trade (www.theanou.com) where you can be directly linked to artisans like Rabha. She is now not only a weaver but is also a trainer for Anou and has started a non-profit organization in Tounfite as well. She helps other women develop themselves by improving their understanding of small business development and management. Rabha believes “….experience as an Anou trainer has taught me how to better sell and make my own products in order to help the women in my village. I now understand the problems artisans face across Morocco and I believe I can help.” It is precisely this approach of Moroccans helping Moroccans that ensures the sustainability and lasting change. Seven years later as I reread this journal entry and think of our lasting impact in Morocco, I am so thankful that we hiked up to that cave and that we said yes to an invitation to tea. And in Morocco anyway, all development, personal or organizational, begins with a round of sweet, syrupy, glorious, mint tea poured from a hand held high so that you get the right turban of bubbles on top. You never know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
“The river delights to lift us free, if we only dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”
~ Richard Bach
Hiking up the canyon amidst long autumnal shadows, I could feel the excitement of the adventure that lay before us. We were going to backpack up eight or nine miles to a misshapen pair of subalpine lakes, circle around behind the upper lake and then head much, much farther up the canyon. From the upper lake on, we would be off the trail and the responsibility would be ours to find our path. As Gary Snyder put it we would be “off the trail, on the path.” Our first night was spent at the top of the upper falls, where we simply sprawled out upon the smooth, water-worn granite. The sound of the rushing water lulled us to sleep and off to dream-land we went until we were awoken by someone turning on a bright light. I opened my weary eyes and was instantly blinded by the now risen moon’s brightness. A few days past full and it still illuminated the entire world around us. The white granite walls of the canyon glowed as the once brilliant stars faded into unknown parts of the galaxy. Pulling my winter cap over my eyes allowed me to drift off to a fitful sleep.
A pool above the upper falls of Canyon Creek with Sawtooth Peak in the background.
The next day we continued up the canyon, meandering with the trail through towering conifer forests, past the reds of dogwoods and the yellows of maples, and towards more and more granite until we reached the upper lake. Following the lake shore we made our way around to its backside, where a large meadow delighted our eyes with the dying golds and browns of autumn. Here we left the trail behind and simply followed the creek higher and higher, past turquoise pools, cascades, waterfalls and weeping (Brewer’s) spruces. Somewhere nearby was John’s favorite spruce – a twisted and gnarled old man of a tree bending its way out of the granite and toward the sun. Continuing upward, we stopped for a lunch break in yet another meadow, relaxing upon a huge granite boulder that formed a sort of island in the middle of the meadow.
Delighted by the scenery and solitude, and refreshed by the food and the mountain air, we walked on. Higher and higher, farther and farther up the canyon. Our second camp was made on the top of the next granite step, a quarter of a mile away and a seventy-five foot scramble up from the meadow. We were greeted with a cold and steady wind coming down from the high peaks above us: Thompson (the tallest peak in the Trinity Alps at just over 9,000 ft), Wedding Cake (approximately 8,500 ft) and Caesar (8,920 ft). We were now in a world of rock and mountain peak and the wind reminded us of our place in the world here at 7,000 feet. We found a small grove of mountain hemlock and western white pine that were level enough for a campsite and kindly out of the wind. Looking up the canyon, a granite world awaited us. Looking down the canyon to what we had just traversed revealed a classic U-shaped glacial valley. The granite walls of the canyon dropped sharply to the valley floor where they met meadows, boulder fields and groves of trees. So stunning that it took our breath away (or was that the effect of the cold wind?) and I was reminded of Lama Anagarika Govinda’s words from his book “The Way of the White Clouds”:
A meadow in the upper canyon of Canyon Creek looking north to Thompson Peak.
The next morning we were greeted with alpen-glow on the peaks above us and the moon hanging just above Wedding Cake’s craggy peaks. After a breakfast of hot oatmeal and coffee, we shouldered our packs and headed out to climb up the southeastern flanks of Wedding Cake which would get us quickly out of the canyon floor and up into the vast granite world of the high country. We soon learned that short cuts in the mountains are often long and always arduous. Climbing up through a steep crack, John and I had to take off our packs and hand them up to each other and then rock climb our way to safer ground. Once up on the extensive granite of this western side of the canyon, we were able to cruise our way on long smooth granite fields and through rocky boulder fields. Granite, golden grasses and bear poop. Delighted and exhausted, early afternoon came upon us, and we had made less progress than we had hoped. We decided to descend towards the canyon floor and a hidden meadow rather than continue on over unknown terrain.
Alpen-glow on Wedding Cake as the moon lingers above the ridge.
Dropping some two-thousand feet from 8,200 feet, we discovered a hidden amphitheater of rock where a glacial lake was nearly created and envisioned a glacier sitting there, melting ice and churning rock. Descending farther, we hastily dropped our packs and began to explore the meadow. A silence settled on us as we realized the immense and stunning beauty of this place. It was a perfect Japanese Zen garden: water so clear that you could not discern the surface from the substrate, mossy banks with overhanging ferns and heather, medium sized granite boulders in just the right proportion as to not overwhelm, and just the perfect splashes of yellows (willows), reds (huckleberries), and browns (ferns and grasses). John and I were stunned yet again into silence. We walked around slowly and gently because we did not want to defile this sacred place. Our presence was profane enough and we did not want to add footprints or loud voices. We felt free to talk at our campsite a short distance from the meadow but not at the meadow itself. No discussion of this point was needed; we both knew and fell silent. That evening and the following morning we were struck by a beauty so profound that I felt deep sadness. Where did this feeling come from? Was it the beauty itself or the understanding that nothing lasts? Or was it the knowledge that I had to leave this place and that I could not remain here forever? The melancholy reminded me of a discussion I recently had with a Zen Buddhist teacher about the ever-changing and ever-flowing nature of life. We attempt to operate under the delusion that there is permanence in this life and yet we all know deep down inside that this simply isn’t true. I was sad that I had to leave this place but even if I could have stayed it would change and so would I. “You simply cannot stay anywhere”, Hozan Alan Senauke said. The conditions of life, both inward and outward, are constantly changing and if we are willing to let go of our grip on permanence, life’s flow will lift us free. With a bow and deep gratitude for having visited this place, we turned in the direction of our car parked nine miles away at the trailhead. Looking back one last time, I knew that even if I returned next year something would be different, something would be changed. With this realization, a half-smile crept across my face as I looked forward to seeing this place again in a different season, in a different light and with different eyes. Despite tired muscles, my legs felt light and my spirit adventurous. It was almost as if I may be lifted free at any moment!
Wildfire affected sky and light near Badger Mountain (and the little town of Waterville) in Central Washington. No relation to the text below, except perhaps it is more difficult to open the hand of thought in strange light? Certainly it would be difficult to be open and relaxed when a wildfire is coming your way (not that it was here, the fire was actually a long distance away).
I will begin with a straight-forward and easy exercise (for most people). Take both your hands, clench them in fists, turn them palm-side up and then…wait for it….here comes the really cool part….open them! Now do it again. And again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
How did it feel? Begin with how it feels in the hands then move to the wrists, and then the arms and the shoulders. Continue to observe. How does it feel in the core of your body? And what about in your heart and in your mind?
You may be wondering about the connection between opening your hand and sensations in your heart and mind, so let us start with the obvious – the body and move on from there. When I open my hand, I feel (actually it’s a sensation because it comes from one of my six senses whereas feelings are really an interpretation of sensory information whereby we categorize into positive, neutral and negative feelings) an immediate release and relaxation in my hand, wrist, arm and shoulder. Naturally so. If I am aware enough to notice it, I sense that same relaxation and release throughout the rest of my body. Certainly I notice that my breath changes, I exhale and relax when I open my hand; and I inhale and tighten up when I form a fist. Same thing for my heart – relaxation when I open my hand and tightness when I form a fist. And the very same thing is true for my head, my brain and my mind. Opening the hand, opens my whole body, and my mind.
The LaFevers with Mount Rainier in Washington in the background. Hot day, cold snow. This photo has nothing to do with opening the hand, but I thought it was a pretty photo so I added it. I suppose if your hand was cold enough it would be difficult to open it, so perhaps its easiest to open the hand, heart and mind in warm climates?
One might think that this is simply an analogy. When one opens up their hand, they open up to the world. Intellectually speaking, right? Yes and no. In addition to it being a nifty (yes I just used the word “nifty”) analogy, I mean it as more basic than that, more raw and more real. When I open up my hand, I literally relax and open up to the world. All of me, opening up to all of it. And when I truly get to the heart of the matter, I open up to the point where there is no “me”, no “I”, no “us”, no “it” and no “them”. Opening up allows everything else to flood in. Seems abstract but there isn’t anything more concrete.
What can you do with a fist? Not much, I say. You can punch another, pound a table, grab a hold of something. Is there anything else, are there many options with a closed fist? Now what can you do with an open hand? You can shake someone’s hand, hold someone’s hand, pat them on the back, give them a hug, hand them something, receive something, and catch snowflakes to name just a few of the many possibilities of an open hand.
Shunryu Suzuki-roshi famously said that “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.” The beginner’s mind feels like opening up your hand. It is a relaxed and alert state within which all is possible. Not only is all possible, all is occurring in the beginner’s mind. The tightened fist of the expert’s mind is much too wrapped around its own thoughts, ideas and conceptions to have any room for anything (everything) else. That tightness, and that constriction is the sensation of limitation. Kosho Uchiyama-roshi in his book “Opening the Hand of Thought”, wrote:
When we let go of our conceptions, there is no other possible reality than what is right now. This undeniable reality is the reality of life fundamentally connected to everything else in the universe. Right now is all-important. Dwelling here and now, in this reality, letting go of all the accidental things that arise in our minds, is what I mean by “opening the hand of thought.”
When the world seems narrowed, tightened, and limited, I say do this simple exercise and open up with your hand. If nothing else, it can serve as a reminder that the world is limitless, you are connected with it all, and that you can open too. With an open hand there are many possibilities, with a closed fist there are few. And when in doubt, head out West, open yourself up to those vast Western skies and become a Wild-Westerner like these two dolls!
Sunset over Humboldt Bay, California. The old Samoa pulpmill looms in the background, as godwits, willets and other shorebirds forage in the foreground.
Driving along the receding tides and awakening mudflats of the bay, I notice a tall and puffy cloud beyond the coastal mountains. Looks like a cumulonimbus cloud which might produce a thunderstorm I think. It could produce lightning, and with our already dry conditions that could result in yet another wildfire in an area that has already seen many this year. As I look both closer and wider (while trying to not drive off the road), I notice that this puffy cloud looks more like smoke than a cloud that there are no other clouds in the sky. Must be smoke from one of the fires up the Klamath River, I conclude.
Mudflats appear as the tide recedes in the northern part of Humboldt Bay near Arcata, CA. The beginning of the Coastal Range of mountains are seen in the background.
At home that evening, I put on a flannel shirt as the coastal fog rolls in. This is not what I had envisioned earlier for our barbeque dinner and my enthusiasm for eating outside declines with the descending of the mercury on the thermometer. Damn this coastal fog, I say to myself. Fogust is the worst month of the year.
It is a moments like this that I remind myself that these clouds are but a very, very thin part of our atmosphere. If you were to draw an eight-inch circle to represent the earth, the pencil line would be the thickness of the entire atmosphere. The clouds, floating here and there, appearing and disappearing, all occur within that thin space. They can seem so vast, so all-encompassing, and yet high above the marine layer of fog and the entire atmosphere, there is always blue sky and a shining sun.
Rain, fog and lightning are just something happening under those miniscule clouds, but when the fog rolls in thick and wet, we think the entire sky is nothing but cold and gray. And when the clouds grumble and roar with thunder and lightning, we may become afraid. In both cases, we become overwhelmed.
Kosho Uchiyama-roshi once wrote:
In the same way, we are always covered with dark clouds of anxiety and sorrow, caught up in storms of anger and ambition, encounters with agony and despair. However, the clouds and rain of our thoughts are only happening within a pencil-thin atmosphere. This mental weather is simply happening within our thoughts that seek satisfaction. Outside of that sphere of thoughts, the sky is always blue, and the sun is always shining in it. When we can sit immovably like the encompassing sky, we can view and experience storms like pain and sorrow without being overwhelmed.
Coastal clouds roll in, filling up the valleys of the Siskiyou Mountains in Northern California.
With this thought in mind, I look at the western sky as the clouds momentarily part, revealing a rose and tangerine sunset. I am struck like a gong by the beauty of this moment. I breathe in and I breathe out and for a moment I am still and immovable in the vastness of the world.
May we always be reminded of the thin veneer of our thoughts and may we know the vastness of the universe and its all-encompassing sky!