Posted on April 3, 2016
Those three words, seared into the mind, bring a pain I cannot define. I want to reach out and feel the cold iron letters, erasing their significance ~ “Arbeit Macht Frei”
The naïveté when I first read this motto ~ “Work sets you free” still burns. I stepped through the gate into my new home at Dachau, holding fast to this false promise of hope. Hope because hard work and quality were where I hung my hat.
I’ve since learned.
The cold today still gnaws at me within my bones, the chill a constant reminder of Dachau. I adjust my covers fully aware the feeling will never leave, so I lay quietly, shivering. One thought creeping around my mind like a serpent, a repeated whisper: “give up, give in.”
My mind drifts back to those first months. Every piece of my body ached, the world seemingly dissolved around me; work was not setting me free, it was killing me.
“You do what they say, nothing more and nothing less. Be invisible.” Shukhov, my bunkmate smiled to me as we gathered our mess tins for breakfast. “There is no life to be had here. The sooner you understand this, the better off you’ll be.”
It had been the worst months of my life and I was fading fast. Shukhov took me in and taught me to survive. “Giving up is inevitable, and in prison, it is an absolute necessity. If you remain stubborn, they will break you.”
Not wanting to hear those words, I ignore him but asked, “What do you mean, giving up is inevitable?”
“Everyone gives up at some point, be it in life or in prison. For young ones like yourself it is difficult to grasp, but as you get older, giving up gets easy.” Shukhov’s toothless grin was followed by a push toward the mess hall as he continued his speech:
“As you age, you realize what’s happening: life is, basically, like sinking in quicksand. It’s slow at first and takes you by surprise, but there’s a point at which you realize there’s nothing you can do. You’re going under. Once you realize you’re sinking in quicksand… the best thing you can do is try not to thrash around, instead prolong the experience, and make it as pleasant as possible. That’s what giving up is.”
– “On Giving Up” by The Casual Theorist
“Give up…give in.”
I began to ponder these words as I stumbled down a blurred hallway, my eyes quickly swollen shut from a slew of punches, a result of bumping into an SS guard. I fought with the idea of giving up before realizing: Dachau is the worst kind of quicksand, and fighting it would kill me.
“A piece of advice you best take to heart,” Müller, a warder and past friend from my neighborhood whispered to me. “Do not give anyone a reason to draw blood…you will need every drop if you expect to make it in here.”
His meaning echoed the words of Shukhov, “Give up…give in.”
I roll out of bed, put the coffee pot on and wonder aloud if people today share the attitude of “giving up” as written by The Casual Theorist, the rationale of short-term thinking to take an easy way out.
Are people unknowingly casting their freedoms away when they choose to slide by with as little effort as possible?
Around me, I see it everywhere. Eat crap. Watch crap. Drink crap. Talk crap. Gone are aspirations to seek a purer life. Instead, we quickly get older and life becomes more difficult. Giving up is a chronic habit. We’ve become too lazy to seek and pursue quality in life.
The whistle on my coffee pot goes off, snapping me out of thought and I slowly get up and shuffle my way to pour a cup. There is a certain art to making a great cup of coffee, art mastered over the years ~ the aroma, the steam, and the color moving together as it flows from the pot to my mug.
A sign of quality, and it takes me back to a time when I first discovered the importance of this word.
The darkness of solitary confinement had continued my free-fall. I wondered if I would make it through another day, and then as Müller clicked my peephole shut, it did not close. A blinding beacon of light sliced through the darkness.
Drawing myself up, I saw in the distance the simple beauty of broken rays of sunshine filtering down through a tree. With imagination, I saw tomorrow and my eyes filled with tears.
For the first time in Dachau, I saw a quality of life I had forgotten. Now giving up had meaning. It had a partner: quality.
The Statue of the Unknown Prisoner holds power, the resemblance to Shukhov is uncanny, the words just as wise.
Den toten zur ehr den lebenden zur mahnung ~ ‘An honor to those who died, a warning to those who live’
Dachau was filled with days upon days upon days of nothingness. Bitter cold, fear and constant hunger left just enough energy by lights-out to crawl back into bed and do it all over again tomorrow.
Such times were deafening and defeating, but there was an unknown consequence to such days as well. My mind became more in-tune to the smallest pieces of quality. Something simple and pure, and while it may have lasted only a few seconds, it felt like a victory.
This instinctive, private search for meaning was feed by an invisible curiosity. It kept me sane. The misery of cold and hunger blinded the spirit, but when quality arrived, it made the day almost happy.
Shukhov lit a small cigarette and spoke thoughtfully, “I’ve figured out we have roughly ten minutes in the morning another ten at night…the prisoner’s own time.” He looked out the window at the guards getting ready for roll call, and Shukhov added, “All remaining hours belong to the camp.”
Grabbing his bag, he kept talking. “A ridiculously short time, but it never surprises me the quality we can fit in.” He got up from the bench tapping my shoulder to hurry up, “a fine balance we keep. Prison life will not give you time to do anything but give up.”
I laugh at this thought. In such an environment, the modern mind couldn’t function, but then again the mind can be so strangely efficient when pushed to the brink.
Finishing my cup of coffee, I begin to prepare my oatmeal, more out of habit than hunger. I no longer feel hunger, just a rationalization to supply fuel for my body.
It leads me to wonder, “How could anyone ever understand the true meaning of hunger…?”
Meals. “Every day, my mind was sharply focused on each spoonful. Slowly chewing even if there was nothing to chew, just moving it around my mouth trying to trick my stomach into thinking it will be getting more than it actually would…” A story I often share when asked.
As for a story I never share: if you had offered me a choice between “my meal” or “freedom from Dachau” ~ I’d have chosen the meal. Every time. We all would have.
Hunger. Humility. Dachau demanded it.
The dullness of a day steals time until years feel like it is all just one long day. Prison life cannot help but defeat a mind, staring at the hours of nothing. I use to wonder if the mind could ever find its way back into reality.
I look around me today and I see the same. People mindlessly giving up, allowing the dullness of a day to stretch out into years.
Pulling my collar tight, I shiver with the oncoming cold.
Cold mornings always woke me early. The few extra minutes before reveille were precious. I never wasted a thought for a few more minutes of sleep, too obvious. Instead, I began my plan to make it through the day: the hope for a few more grains of oats at the bottom of the bowl, an honest cut of bread and if possible a drag on a cigarette before the workday began.
Never forgetting I belonged to Dachau whose only goal was to break me.
A cold breeze sweeps over my face – a breeze I know comes not from the cool winds outside my window but from a distant memory a lifetime ago.
In Dachau, the human trait of giving up served me well. I survived and I began to understand the balance between “accepting the inevitable and giving up” and its silent partner, “the inevitable curiosity of quality which leads to the pursuit of life.”
The balance is dynamic, evolving as we age. Every morning we reconciled within our minds ~ weighing two thoughts: which shall I focus on today?
Posted on February 8, 2016
The long and winding road of this past year has finally reached its end. I feel broken. Exhausted. Started the year as a kid, climbing mountains ready to attack the world, and now I’m an old goat with barely the energy to take another step.
Standing here on the precipice of the Lunar New Year, staring across the dark chasm leading into the Year of the Monkey, my heart is filled part with relief – part with dread.
How can I cross it, I wonder? I’ve arrived with the waning crescent moon on the doorstep of the Lunar New Year. My skin etched in wrinkles deeper than in years past, looking the worse for wear.
Tonight I meet the Queen of the Night ~ another of Mother Nature’s incredible daughters, and I have nothing left to give.
She is one of the sacred mountains of Buddhism, resting in southeast Myanmar.
A serene and peaceful lady ~ she carries a pulse of life coursing through her veins like I’ve seldom witnessed.
“A pulse of life…seldom witnessed” a perfect way to bring in the year, and my thoughts drift back to my girl Ellinor in the Skokomish Wilderness; guilt pounds in my heart as this year I stand enchanted with her distant cousin here in Southeast Asia.
A glimmer captures my attention. Her eyes, those dark, deep pools of mystery, draw me closer while her name leaves my tongue in knots… Mt. Kyaiktiyo, it is an honor.
I pause at the entrance of her summit and wonder, “Where is the quiet solitude I expected?” and I collapse on the nearest boulder thinking “…just what have I gotten myself into?”
My last breath of the Year of the Goat is a sigh. I look around at the controlled chaos. Ms. Kyai is treating me to a scene I can barely comprehend.
Every bump and bruise I’ve experienced over this past year begin to throb, and I turn to watch others arrive. Farmers bent over and exhausted from the past year, they too struggle to the summit arriving in the waiting arms of Kyai, surrendering to the year.
I close my eyes and wish I could sleep, to forever rest these aching bones. A cool hand assures me I am not alone, and Kyai begins pressing on my weary body amplifying my pain, checking to see if I am still alive.
I look into her eyes and see a smirk. With kindness, she caresses my spirit, washes her hands over me as she mutters softly “those beautiful wrinkles of life…”.
She winks at me, “create some more…” understanding the aches and wrinkles of a year well lived is a badge of honor, and she rushes off to another.
My broken body experiences a sense of enlightenment watching her float away, her perfume leaves a scent of desire drifting through the night air.
My eyes land on a couple of poor workers I met a few days earlier in the hills of Northern Myanmar, but it is impossible…how could they have travelled here?!?
I watch them pass by, their soundless smiles interrupted by the unmistakable whisper of Kyai, who turns their silence into poetry, “Even when you have very little, you can still have so much…”
My romanticized ideal of Mt. Kyaiktiyo as an isolated, mystical Buddhist mountain wrapped in silence and fog has been twisted into a raucous Buddhist pilgrimage. Surrounding me, an aura of electricity powerful enough to ignite any soul.
This is why we set out on adventures…
Already, I see the deep wrinkles of my skin fade. My stooped body is straightening. My stagnate blood beginning to flow freely once again.
My eyes faded to the point of blindness are now refocusing on the wild dreams of young ones and the belief I can do it all.
This is the way it should be. Finishing a year in pain, broken down and dying…only to notice a young soul on the other side of the abyss coercing me from the darkness to deliver me into another yearlong journey.
I look at the spirit and youth in envy. It fills me with pride.
I hear conversations around me. I taste the excitement that fills the night.
Kyai softly whispers to me, “the Year of the Fire Monkey has arrived…make it yours,” her words adding to the ecstasy of the past year and her kiss, a balm for my weary mind.
Her deep eyes are now filled with flames, and I am engulfed. The transformation has begun.
The heat. The evening chill has vanished and I enter into the deeper parts of the night. Hope sheds away the skin and pain of the past year.
The flame flickers along with the ticklish words of Kyai, and together they cloak me up in the festive spirit of the final night. Within her eyes, I see what I came here for – a reflection of a young man, born again.
The glow of happiness is evident in the smiles of strangers, all who feel like family.
Seeing the New Year through young eyes, a sensation so rare it makes me question if it is even possible.
A curiosity feeds my soul to pursue life again, with new mistakes lying ahead ready to teach and guide me along the way.
A faint trail of words brush over my neck singing, “Smile, adapt and move forward with courage… three simple thoughts and the Year of the Monkey is yours.” Kyai coos, sending a ripple of new blood flowing throughout my body.
Smile, adapt and move forward with courage. I can do that.
Stretching my young body off the rock I am resting, I walk past a couple in silence, their unspoken words ring loud. Tonight is where possibilities transform into reality. Another chance at renewal and happiness in life; in the words of Benjamin Button:
“We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.” – Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Throughout the year, Christmas, the Lunar New Year, Diwali, Ramadan and other celebrations give us all the opportunity to renew and free the spirit from the broken down old thoughts of the past ~ the contradictions, biases and jealousies of old, angry men.
We are allowed to return to our purer form, the mind of a child ~ refreshed with the freedoms to pursue happiness and “… the courage to start all over again.”
I think back to just a few short hours ago, the feeling of a wrinkled, broken down soul fully spent in the Year of the Goat, now renewed and back into a form I can recognize once again.
The renaissance of a soul and the words of Dr. Seuss prepare me for another twelve-month journey to explore, signalling the end of a brilliant year with the promise of a perfect day.
“You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting, so…get on your way!”
– Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!
Wish you great health and luck in the Year of the Monkey ~ 预祝猴年大吉!
Posted on December 31, 2015
I’ve made a mistake.
I look behind me but there is no turning back, I’ve past the point of no return.
The chill of frost has seeped further into my bones; the other side of the frozen lake appears just as far away as it did an hour ago. Or was it only a few minutes ago?
With snow blowing around I bow my head and take a seat, lost in time.
Earlier today I met up with a friend, a theoretical physicist who has one of the best minds I’ve ever known. Her head is often in the clouds and her optimism makes her irresistible in conversation.
The day started out as it often does, walking along a path with coffee in hand amid a group of monkeys. Today, she brought up the infinite monkey theorem: given an infinite amount of time, a monkey at a typewriter would almost surely produce a piece of work such as the complete writings of Shakespeare.
Based on the low energy level of the group, we agreed today no such masterpiece would be delivered by our friends.
However, this did get us talking about time and the few fleeting hours remaining in 2015 before the New Year arrived. As if on cue, we both said “time has flown by faster this year than ever before…” and with this our discussion of time began.
A topic very dear to her heart is the question of how our brain sees the world ~ how our brain organizes what we experience, sorts through the chaos and creates a perception of reality so we can function effectively in this world.
Her enthusiasm is contagious. I remember the first time she looked over her coffee and breathlessly whispered, “The only reality we know is what our brain manufactures…how we experience and feel time – it all happens within the mind” followed by her smile and a mad-scientist laugh.
“When I was a young kid; summer days seemed to go on forever. Every second of the day had something new to explore, my mind racing to understand and learn. Time did not matter.” She sat back and mused, her eyes on a baby monkey being cared for by her mother.
“A young child has no understanding of time, they live in the moment…being time as there is so much happening in their world, their brain is in the now doing all it can to make sense of life.”
She is lost in thought but adds, “The adult interpretation of time is irrelevant to a child.”
I’ve always been fascinated by time, from the view of a physicist and the existence of time to the neuroscientist and our perception of time.
One early memory I have, I was a young kid floating in a pool of water thinking about time. Thinking about why adults always said, “time goes by faster and faster as they get older…” I had no idea what this meant.
When I grew older, I began experiencing this feeling of time speeding up, but did not take it seriously until recently when I sensed time flying past at an increasing rate. It is alarming.
The honking of the geese above signal the alarm as well, time speeding away out of reach. The bite of the cold wind sends shivers down my spine. Strangely, it is a feeling I am relishing – this rush of a new experience.
“This is the frustrating thing about life,” she nodded at me, eyes sparkling again, “when we were young, our minds were spinning. Our brain receiving so much information, often out of order, that it needed time to process and reorganize all the new ideas so we could understand the reality we were living in.”
She paused wistfully, “Our brains needed time to sort and organize reality, so our perception of time was longer when we were young. We extended time. This may be the key to extending life today.”
“Fast forward to us as adults, and the world is familiar. Information can be processed quickly,” and with a sigh she took another drink of coffee. “Thus our perception of time is shorter. Time flies by.”
“Add to this our repetitive routines, modern technology efficiently processing information and time begins to pass quicker every year. We continue to provide the fuel by getting in a rut, spiraling quickly downward with time.”
Her gaze landed on the far side of the lake, and she added, “Days quickly turn into weeks, weeks into months and months into years until one day *poof* we look back and it is over.”
She paused, and I was surprised to see tears welled up in her eyes. “I feel as if time has tricked me and I am spinning out of control.”
Her tears slowly rolled down her cheek, each representing a dream disappearing into the annals of time.
She wiped the tears away and exclaimed, “It is sad, we get older and our brain becomes efficient because we are boring!” she laughs. “Without adventure, life will fly right on by.”
Her eyes lock in on mine, and I am surprised how a discussion of physics can increase my heart rate and make my palms sweaty. “We need to find a way to extend our time…”
“We need to explore new sensations, overload the brain and perhaps then we can stretch out time just like we did when we were young,” the glimmer in her eyes not seeking approval.
We walked a few more steps before her words hit me like a wave of cold water.
She whispered, “Let’s be spontaneous.” Pointing across the lake, she added, “Your adventure begins with a trek across the lake, I’ll wait for you at the hot springs on the other side…and together we’ll try to stop time, at least for tonight.”
Stunned by her words, my mind went blank and I looked toward a monkey for help. Fortunately, he was a wise one, and seemed to understand my situation. He nodded his head, so I looked at her and did the same.
With a quick peck on my cheek, she grabbed her keys and headed out to the car leaving me stranded.
This is how I find myself in this predicament, lost on Lake Mashu-ko. I look ahead where I believe the hot springs lie and sigh…it seems I’ve been out here forever and the other side is still so far away.
Time, a concept impossible to define, but definitely worth contemplating as 2015 comes to an end. My goal for the New Year, to slow down time.
I looked at my watch and realize I’ve been out here for only 10 minutes. Yes, this is a good sign and my laughter echoes off the surrounding mountains.
With my heart beating and my brain working overtime – I pick up the pace. I figure, whether or not she is there waiting for me does not really matter. The adventure has begun. From across the lake, a cry from a white-tailed sea eagle reminds me of the words of Eleanor Roosevelt:
“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
I look ahead, and no one has to tell me, life is short, getting shorter. Make time in 2016 to explore. To slow down and take in all life has to offer.
Happy New Year!
Posted on November 4, 2015
Lack of sleep makes concentration difficult. I’m on my third cup of coffee and I can’t help but stare out the window trying to recapture last night’s fading dream of a life of a cowboy.
“找不到你公司税务登记证 ! 在哪里?”
The sound of these foreign words spin me back to reality here in China.
“如果找不到太麻烦!” My secretary again looks at me for a response.
I shut my eyes and focus on the feeling of “Let’er Buck” – a touch of the West, a touch of home.
A world away, I taste the dew of the morning and roll out of bed to gaze over never-ending wheat fields. I imagine saddling up the best friend a cowboy will ever have and head out to face the day.
The feeling of adventure mixed with a taste of adrenaline I suppose is why the cowboy often has a wistful smile as he saddles up.
It doesn’t take long for the soft eyes of my horse to be replaced by the glare of my secretary. Her continual banter in Chinese steals me away from my daydream.
The figures on the spreadsheets in front of me wrestle each other in an endless battle to determine whether the year will see a profit or a loss.
There will be a lot more wrestling with figures before the day ends and the freedom of a ride has never felt so far away. Running on the wind lifted by the cheers of a crowd.
I hold up my hand, and the Chinese words stop mid-sentence and for a second all is quiet, a rare moment of peace.
“I should’ve been a cowboy…” I mutter, a common wish for most guys I grew up with, although for me I admit a life on the back of a bucking bronc is not in my blood.
The courage to ride requires a special spirit infused at birth. The adrenaline rush of the ride, the feel of the rope, speed of the chase and mixing blood with mud is a lifestyle meant only for the few.
What I am chasing though, is almost as elusive, the spirit of the cowboy. The legend created by songs and stories I’ve heard growing up: the down-to-earth attitude, importance of treating each other well and when taking a fall ~ fearlessly dusting off and saddling up again.
Dusting myself off, I stare at my computer and pound out another business email…
The essence of the life of a cowboy defines the spirit of my hometown of Pendleton, Oregon. Waking up every morning with the annual September dream of becoming a cowboy, if only for a day.
To walk out onto the infield grass and take it all in, feeling the crowd with the beating heart of the grandest rodeo in the world, the Pendleton Round-Up.
Around the world there are company executives pilfering the paychecks of their workers, politicians focused on lining their pockets and places where a hard day’s work has become a myth of days gone by.
The cowboy spirit flows through Pendleton with the memories of past cowboy heroes such as Lane Frost, Mike Boothe and Mike Currin – men as genuine in the arena as they were outside.
Also the present champions, Trevor Brazile, winner of four consecutive all-around titles at the Pendleton Round-Up and bareback champion Ty Breuer, showing the heart and spirit of cowboys still run true.
For some, the dreams of the West and the cowboys who built America may be disappearing, however they still remain a strong foundation for the people of Pendleton.
Ranchers and farmers understand there is no such thing as an easy ride and to grab an opportunity when it arrives, knowing it may not come again. So when the rope leaves their hand there is no doubt it will find its mark.
The echo of the rodeo reverberates in my mind, as my fingers struggle to tap out a message on my iPhone. These hands stand in stark contrast to the callused hands of a cowboy holding a rope and reigns.
Any calluses I do have are quickly fading away, perhaps similar to the fading cheers a cowboy hears as he walks away from the arena one last time.
Years ago when I was in my mid-20s, I was talking to a bronc rider after an excellent ride and he said something I’ve never forgotten: “The opening of a bucking chute is like the start of a new day. Some days will be tough with rough rides and broken bones – those days are to be remembered because it makes good days like today taste all the better.”
Patience. Belief. Hard work. Cowboy logic.
There are many things I’ve learned from rodeo champions over the years, but perhaps the most valuable lessons have come from the local farmers and ranchers.
Growing up, my annual summer job at PGG operating Rew grain elevator during harvest stands as one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had.
The many people I worked with at Rew helped form my character, each one having the heart of a Pendleton cowboy. Two such cowboys, Bob Byers, who can create a solution for any problem and Terry Simpson who has an outlook on life second to none; both men define Pendleton perfectly.
From Pendleton to Calgary to Cheyenne and to cities around the world, the spirit of the life of a cowboy flows free and strong. Looking out the window again, I put on a George Strait CD to fit my mood and the music even makes my secretary smile.
Here in China, I’ve found the soul of the cowboy both in myself and in the great people I work with over here.
Closing my eyes, I feel the wind on my face and the pounding of hooves and earth blending perfectly with the music. I feel great.
Yes, I may be thousands of miles from home but all I need to hear are the words “Let’er Buck” and I am right back in the middle of the Pendleton Round-Up arena and it’s a perfect day.
The beginning of December is where the last piece of magic will be performed when future champions get ready to ride at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas.
Cowboys who grew up in small towns around the country, holding onto a belief that one day their names will be dancing in the bright lights of Vegas. Their focus locked-in on the final ride of the year and the chance to etch their name in the history books and become a part of cowboy folklore.
Good luck and good health to all. 祝你们好运气，健康.
Posted on October 5, 2015
Crawling out of the teepee at first light, my spirit is buoyed with excitement of the salmon run on the Big River (the Columbia). The echoing roar of Celilo Falls in the background is a symphony, welcoming back the tribes once again.
Rubbing my eyes and taking a cool breath of morning air, there is a light laugh beside me followed by several pieces of salmon pemmican pushed into my hand reminding me while I may not have been born into the Umatilla tribe, I am treated as family.
I spot a friend from the Nimi’ipuu (Nez Perce) tribe across the way, and remember the spring day long ago in 1838 sitting down with Chief Tuekakas (Joseph the Elder) and a group of men from the Hudson’s Bay Company out of Fort Vancouver.
I was a young kid responsible for translation, fascinated by these leaders discussing the impact of the first party of Cherokees to resist removal to a reservation, not yet knowing their brave march westward would one day be known as the Trail of Tears.
The impact of Chief Tuekakas’ words that day led me to take the opportunity to travel with his people, the Nimi’ipuu.
The wisdom I collected over those years I hold with gratitude, but my most cherished moment came the day when we stumbled onto a camp of the Umatilla people at the base of the Blue Mountains. All it took was one look and I realized I had found the destiny I had been searching.
Over the past 20 years since those early days, I have lived with the Walla Walla, rode with the Cayuse and shared many a meal with the Palouse, Tenino and Chinook – learning a culture and a land far removed from my birth home in Scotland.
My memory is faint, but I understand while the climate, terrain and traditions of my homeland are quite different; the love of Mother Earth is the same.
It is with this thought I can rest my head, my mind drifting off to dreams of the past. Crossing the Atlantic with family and friends in the year 1828 to reach the New World only to watch in horror as disease ripped through our cramped tenement housing, wiping out everything I held dear.
Broke and alone by the end of the year, I snuck aboard a wagon train with a dream to arrive in the Oregon Country to make my destiny. Discovered by the wagon master early on the trail, my skills as a fisherman and hunter proved valuable, and at a young age I had my first job.
The journey through the free country of the west taught me the land, accepting the beauty it offered. The berries and roots kept us fed. The buffalo, elk and deer honored us with their great bravery as we matched them with our hunting skills.
Not a day goes by where I do not thank the animals, plants and spirit of this land for all they provide, and acknowledge the tacit agreement where we will take care of Mother Earth in return.
Sitting here today along the banks of the Big River, the current mood of the Umatilla people is of sorrow. During the previous night, a tense meeting with the tribal leaders signaled the inevitable signing of a treaty with Washington D.C. to give up 6.4 million acres of land.
A treaty threatening to strangle the freedom and culture built over thousands of years. When the tribes sign the Treaty of 1855 they will receive in exchange, land designated at the Umatilla Indian Reservation to become a permanent homeland.
My mind clears as I gaze off into the distant waters of Celilo Falls. My wife Awendela silently sings as she ponders the future of her people, repairing the fishing nets needed for another day’s work.
Biting into my pemmican, I retell an old folktale from the past, drawing a parallel with the clash of cultures we are experiencing today, an emphasis to remain strong and positive.
“An old man spoke to his grandson. “My child,” he said. “Inside everyone there is a battle between two wolves. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.”
The boy thought for a moment. Then he asked, “Which wolf wins?”
A moment of silence passed before the old man replied, “The one you feed…” ”
Thinking of the world today, I wonder, which wolf is winning?
With the endless cycle of greed that sweeps through men and their politics, I fear the more things change, the more they stay the same.
I feel for the children of this land. The change in lifestyle will be difficult and clashes of culture will create an opportunity for the Evil Wolf to gain traction in the minds of the young.
Turing around, I watch the children of the Cayuse with their ponies teaching the other kids the essence of the magnificent Cayuse horse dominating the plateau. I smile. We can learn much from the children, for their hearts are pure.
Succeed in educating children well and we ensure a way of life and culture forever.
Teach as well as learn the way of the world, and we can all sleep better at night listening to the howling of the Good Wolf, sharing its “joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth” with us all.
Yes, feed the Good Wolf. I sigh and take another bite of pemmican…even with the sadness, I believe this shall be a very good season indeed.
NOTE: The photos above are from the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon pageant taking place every September in Pendleton, Oregon. A communion of sorts for the farmers and ranchers of the area along with the gathering of Native American Indian tribes of the Northwest, with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation hosting a teepee village of over 300 teepees.
A weeklong experience every one should experience once in life ~ Let’er Buck ~
Posted on August 31, 2015
She sits there quietly with the glow of the morning sun reflecting everything a beautiful day should contain. I pace around in search for the perfect angle to enjoy her, and as I look on with eyes filled with desire I set my camera and capture my first sunrise at Arches.
A thought enters my mind…have I just fallen in love?
Stretching out, I close my eyes and sigh. Relaxing under her arch, comfortable with the idea I am experiencing something amazingly new; I consider the gnawing question of “why am I here?”
This thought wriggles around a bit in the back of my mind, but fades as the warmth of the sun and the soft whispers and laughter of the wind allows me to drift off to dream.
Somewhere up north nestled in the Olympic National Forest lies Ellinor, waiting for me and whose love I’ve professed many times. I’ve grown up with her. Shared many summers and winters wrestling with her, the magnificence of her peaks as well as her wicked sense of humor.
Well, her wicked sense of humor will be something I will have to be wary of from this point forward, as news will eventually leak of this tremendous one-night stand I’ve had here in Arches.
Looking down on me now are the eyes of Mother Nature taking stock of her beautiful daughters scattered throughout this land, and the foolish men who try to take them as their own.
Admittedly, I wonder if Mother Nature is planning her revenge, annoyed at me stealthily working my way into another of her daughter’s dreams.
While there is something special returning from a journey or simply escaping life to find Ellinor waiting for me arms open, there is also something special in diving into something new, a sense of freedom speckled with risk and danger.
Mother Nature knows this fact well, within hearts is a desire to pursue. Bravery to chase an undefined destiny and embrace a new challenge. She has admired such and with this thought I beg for her understanding.
Instead of racing up to embrace Ellinor and run my fingers over her once again, I stole out of Seattle and roared down south listening to the inviting whispers of Arches, one of Ellinor’s magnificent cousins.
Leaving behind my steady girl in search for another I am guessing has annoyed Mother Nature, but I figure this is something she has faced since the beginning of time. People running roughshod over her, with appreciation for her beauty and little else.
The thrill of the pursuit never gets old, and Arches has shown me the risk I take is well worthwhile.
With the evening fading, I rise up and rest against a boulder glancing at her boldness once again, where the glow of her skin shifting from the soft light of the morning sun to darkness as starlight now basks upon her; the night air tangling up around her, taking her to bed for the night.
As with Ellinor, the awe and excitement of Arches is naturally breathtaking, with added electricity generated by the unusual and striking differences between the two.
Her feel is different. Her smell. Her sounds.
She ignites freshness from the very core of my soul, lighting a fire of new ideas and dreams. One taste, and it is impossible not to reach for the unknown and hold her forever.
Strangely, the exotic and unknown is something people often fear and avoid. A veil of fear hiding the joys of what life can offer. A veil for sleepwalking through life, afraid of what is different.
Instead, look at the exotic as a gift. The lure of the mysterious is a catalyst for discovery, where new ideas, growth and innovation begins.
As I lay on the ground staring up into the peaceful sky, Arches brings out this curiosity and the lure of possibilities. What is out there?
I hear her words floating around, softly within my dreams and as whispers within the wind. Sweetly telling me to ignore the drone of modern life and wrap myself up into her inviting arms.
Traveling from the temperate rain forest of Ellinor, where new shades of green highlight every visit, to the extreme of the high-desert of Arches, where stunning shades of color seize the senses.
Last night, under a midnight-black sky a perfect song flicked on the radio, the words of Ellinor lighting up the road ahead:
“Go on and close your eyes, go on imagine me there. She’s got similar features with longer hair, and if that’s what it takes to get you through ~ Go on and close your eyes, it shouldn’t bother you…”
– Melissa Etheridge, “Similar Features”
Her words a bit harsh, but I had to find her so I closed my eyes and hit the gas. If all turned out the way I dreamt it to be, my reward would be witnessing the arching of her back in delight as she accepted me as one who was worthy.
Arches brings to me the diverse look of Mother Earth, one to be embraced: an attraction from deep in the heart, full of uncertainty. Something new, similar to the excitement found around the world: a new culture, a different shade of skin or an intriguing philosophy of life.
Nothing can break the strong bonds I hold for Ellinor, she is family and I’ve shared my deepest and greatest secrets with her. However, life is not all a temperate rain forest and Arches has seen to that…
Extremes exist and instead of lashing out in fear at differences, life is more interesting when embracing the mystery. Ellinor may be upset as I continue my courtship with Arches, but it is while she blushes as new hikers arrive to test her slopes, biting her lip as she feels their exotic touch.
Inspiration is one gift nature gives daily, without thought of creed or race, creating one family respectful and caring for the beauty of Mother Nature and her daughters.
Arches. The allure of colors and your perfume floating in the wind are what makes this land great and keeps us coming back for more.
My return to Ellinor will be fueled by the intense feelings we shared this summer. Your bite of inspiration and temptation towards the exotic heightens the meaning of love.
As I again rest my head on my earthen pillow, I hear Ellinor softly whispering to me again: “Go on and close your eyes, go on imagine me there…”
Posted on July 27, 2015
Sri Lanka. No doubt a beautiful country. The lowlands are surrounded by the blue waters of the Indian Ocean rhythmically rolling onto white sandy beaches of the island.
The central highlands, a jungle of green where a cool temperate climate offers a perfect environment for Sri Lanka’s billion-dollar-a-year tea industry. Lush tea plantations scattered throughout the picturesque scenery.
Nestled within the highlands is the city of Nuwara Eliya, one of the premium tea growing areas of the world. High above the clamor of the lowlands, the verdant landscape feels as if time has stood still.
In many ways it has, as for centuries the tea plantations have counted on the quiet exploitation of the Tamil minority group, members of the lowest caste system in Sri Lanka, to pick tea leaves. Isolated in the remote mountainous areas of Sri Lanka, it is the Tamil women who make up the work force that keep this industry flowing.
The life of a tea picker is hard, long days combined with squalor living conditions make it clear why Tamil Indian laborers were imported into the country so long ago to fill such jobs. Jobs locals refused to take.
Upon a wall of a dilapidated shack in a plantation housing project, eight simple words summarizes generations of thought for tea pickers here in Nuwara Eliya: “Life is a pain…endure is the answer.”
A place with little hope, yet the little hope of today is more than they imagined a decade ago.
She looks down at her calloused hands. Her day picking tea leaves having just ended, she winces at the pain as she lifts her bag of leaves and gives them to the field manager.
Ahead is a hard hour hike home over the hill where she will busy herself with chores, fetch water, cook dinner for her family and then spend what little time remains with her reason for living: her beautiful baby daughter.
Tears well up in her eyes as she honestly wonders if this is as good as it gets.
Every day is the same bad dream, the same hell. Day in. Day out. She wakes up prior to dawn and sets out to the tea fields, plucking tea until dusk and then takes the long hike home. Praying for no harassment, praying for a peaceful night. She understands this is the fate of a Tamil woman on a tea plantation: a woman with little power, a woman with little control of her life.
Sadness hits when she realizes if her young daughter is lucky enough, she may have at best a similar fate. “If she is lucky…” Quickly she erases any such negative thought from her mind.
As a member of the Tamil minority group working in a male dominated culture, there simply are few options available for her, her daughter or their future.
This thought breaks her heart.
She looks out her doorway at a group of Save the Children workers and dreams the impossible dream for her daughter.
Could the promise of a safe environment for children; a school for her daughter to attend and learn the wonders of the world become a reality?
She allows herself to smile inwardly at such hope, but understands Sri Lanka and the history and culture of her people all to well to put such faith into the future.
Standing in the doorway, she ponders the stories and rumors of Save the Children, the hope this organization has brought to neighboring tea plantations. It is a glint of a possibility, the chance of future happiness for her daughter.
She steps closer to listen to the voices of the workers as supplies are dropped off, and before she is noticed she quickly slips back into her tiny shack.
As she begins to prepare dinner she senses a tingling of awareness, the freedom the human soul needs to dream and pursue experiences.
Tonight she is happy. She reflects back on the stories of suffering and repression told by her grandmother and mother, as well as the horrible experiences she’s had herself, but instead of defeat she sees hope. The hope the vicious cycle of oppression will end.
Generations upon generation of young women are born into servitude in the tea industry, forever working the tea fields of Sri Lankan tea plantations.
The high country of Nuwara Eliya, far removed from the large cities and their economic successes, has remained stuck in the dark ages. Business corruption and ancient ideas thousands of years old keep the Tamil people of this area stuck in purgatory.
The Tamils give their life and blood to the tea industry, making up 2% of the country’s GDP, a commitment spanning centuries. It is a hard life, and while the industry is trying to find a way to give back, there are conflicts of interest.
Business is business, and tea plantation owners are currently undergoing a deteriorating market for Ceylon Tea. In addition to the fear of further decreases in sales and higher costs of providing benefits to the field workers, plantation owners are also terrified of losing a cheap workforce by allowing freedoms and opportunities to the Tamil women and children.
Save the Children as well as other relief organizations have been working to break this relentless and cruel cycle robbing the potential of these children. It is difficult to not shudder while looking into their eyes understanding the future ~ their fate determined at birth.
Change is not easy, especially given the tension between gender and class struggle seeped in cultural beliefs spanning millenniums. The Tamil women and children face daily battles in this quagmire of repression.
A Sri Lankan worker at Save the Children discussed the value the organization brings to the people of Nuwara Eliya, mentioning a quote from Swami Vivekananda, “Dare to be free, dare to go as far as your thought leads, and dare to carry that out in your life.”
This piece of Hindu philosophy, an important part of their culture, rings hollow to them. It is difficult for them to grasp the idea of freedom not to mention the courage to act on such thoughts.
The people of Sri Lanka are the ones stepping up to make a difference. Sri Lankans with the wisdom to understand the value women and children have to their country and their efforts within the Save the Children system brings real change via the following programs:
- Early Childhood Care & Development (ECCD)
- Water, Sanitation and Hygiene
Such programs provide the base to empower the women of Nuwara Eliya and of Sri Lanka. When hope is instilled in a group, confidence soon follows giving strength to tackle issues. Real change begins to take place.
The Tea Association of Sri Lanka is working with Save the Children on an updated branding model for Fair Trade Tea, a platform of reform for all large tea estates to provide specific and permanent benefits for women and children within their plantation.
In the past, salaries of women from the tea estates were transferred directly to the “man of the house” with the result of wages often wasted on alcohol or gambling.
No longer is this the case. Women now receive salaries directly so the money can be used to buy food and necessary items for childcare. This is empowerment. Step-by-step, change is happening. The dreams of children are beginning to form.
She again stands in the doorway, this time watching her grown daughter go off to work. Her daughter, as with past generations of her family continues the tradition of working on the tea estates…but here is a twist to the tale. Instead of picking leaves in a field far away, she is wearing a white blouse and has entered a nurse-in-training program at the local clinic.
Her daughter looks back and gives a quick smile before disappearing into the plantation’s maternity clinic.
Her eyes well up with tears once again as they had every evening in the past when she worked in the fields. This time, however, the tears of sadness are absent instead flowing down her cheeks are tears of pure happiness…
Save the Children and other aid groups such as World Vision are working in Sri Lanka to break the cycle of repression. To provide hope for children and their mothers, an opportunity to achieve what once was unimaginable: an education and a dream of advancement.
If you are interested in learning more about Save the Children please click on a site listed below: