The Abyss and a New Year Renaissance

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.” 

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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!

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Wish you great health and luck in the Year of the Monkey ~ 预祝猴年大吉!

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The Endurance of Tacloban: Heart of the Philippines

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Violent winds swirl the dark, ominous thunderclouds overhead. The pounding waves crash onto the rocky shore and the roar of the Pacific Ocean makes its intention clear: thrash anything in its path.

With electricity in the air, I am oblivious to everything except the power coming my way as rain beats against my face, sucking me into the depths of the storm.

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Ever since I was young, the powerful forces of storms, especially on the Oregon Coast, have held a rare type of electricity for me.  Electricity that excites my soul and eliminates any trace of fear I may have.

Chasing the idea of becoming one with the storm.  Not just to see the power unravel in front of me, but to physically feel this rare electricity.

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The past three days I’ve experienced a different type of feeling.

Walking along the Tacloban city coastline watching the sunrise, I am beginning to understand the other side of this “rare electricity” I feel when Mother Nature unleashes her fury ~ the distress and chaos she creates.

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Understanding why hearts quicken to a point of exhaustion when thunder clasps and wind and rain fill the sky.

Understanding why there is no glint of excitement in the eyes as a storm brews, instead only an endless sadness: a mix of memories and dread.

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The eyes of the children of Tacloban carry terrifying memories and fear from last year; introduced to them on November 8, 2013.

This was the day when super-typhoon Yolanda unleashed her fury on the quiet city of Tacloban in the Philippines. On that dark day, more than 6,000 people died. 11 million lives were directly affected, 5.9 million of those children.

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As I stand here this morning on a beach outside the city, surrounded by a special kind of darkness found only within the hour of dawn, my mind drifts back to that day one year ago.

Thoughts drift to a stunned family, who sat in their makeshift home as the seawater entered and refused to retreat.

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My mind trying to imagine the panic in the eyes of every family member, as the power of the current made the threat of the rising sea even more terrifying.

And as the hours passed, the surge of water would rise to over six feet, easily destroying homes and buildings… and well before then, the family would have been swept away by the sea.

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These are the eyes that are now teaching me.  Allowing me to see a side of nature that can bring the strongest spirit down to its knees.

These eyes also inspire. Having seen what the people of Tacloban have done over the past year brings to life the words of William Barclay:

“Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, 

but to turn it into glory”

The people here have endured…

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On this December morning, I find myself in Tacloban with Save the Children on one of those rare, magical experiences that life offers.

The visit has shown the devastation typhoon Yolanda brought upon this area and the great effort that Save the Children has made in rebuilding lives.

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Trying to wrap my mind around what has happened here is almost futile, but I am learning.

The goal of this trip was to witness not just the rebuilding of structures, but also understand the post-recovery training programs.  Programs to ensure lifelong change for the children, their families and communities.

  • Training teachers and leaders of communities
  • Supporting access to quality child care and development

And most important: teaching skills that can turn the hopes and dreams of children into reality.

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The genuine smiles have tugged at the heartstrings throughout the past three days and seeing the recovery program has been brilliant. There is something special here, apart from the shared tragedy there is a kindred spirit that mirrors the beauty of the land ~ the people here are creating a paradise.

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What has been done is incredible and with continued support it will become a miracle.  I walk away from Tacloban inspired.  The memory of sitting down and talking to these beautiful, young minds full of dreams is unforgettable.

This beautiful city along with Save the Children has made me believe there are such things as guardian angels.

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Looking out toward the sea, I feel a touch of sadness as the sun rises on my last day in Tacloban.  Turning and walking along the shore, I watch a man sitting in the bow of his boat working on a repair.

He gives me a nod along with a faint smile as I bring my camera up for a shot. He pauses, looks out into the distance and his lighthearted expression seems to take on a sense of melancholy.

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I’ve learned that along this small section of the coast, everyone lost someone in the typhoon last year. Hunkering down in flimsy shelters with the belief that the waters that gave life would never be cruel enough to turn on them; to reach out and take life as it did.

Walking through town, there are heart-wrenching and strong memories everywhere.

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Throughout Tacloban are gutted buildings, piles of rubble and stark reminders for all to see.

What is most painful and can seize the heart, are the small things that at first seem insignificant ~ until its significance hits.  Another reminder of the lives lost during that dark day.

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I try not to let my imagination and emotions get the best of me, but fail. I’ve read accounts of the struggles of the Tacloban community; families with wounds that will never be fully healed.  Local photographer Orlando Uy captures many emotions of his city in his photo-blog “A Walk With My Camera”.

These memories are everywhere: pain multiplied by thousands, as loved ones were swept away. My admiration and respect goes out to the people here who live with these daily reminders.

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The trauma and helplessness created by Yolanda now takes a back seat to the rebuilding of communities.  The creation of a future for themselves and for their children.

It is stirring to see the locals understand the opportunity they have. To embrace organizations like Save the Children, helping lay the framework for a lifelong investment into their future.

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The future of Tacloban is similar to the future of cities scattered all over the globe: it lies with the children.

During my stay, I learned the motto of Save the Children in times of emergency: “children can’t wait” as children are the one part of the population that are most vulnerable in times of turmoil.

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Seeing the ability of both the people of Tacloban and the workers at Save the Children, there is no doubt that this area will quickly bloom with laughter and happiness.

Witnessing the effective use of donations, my faith in human compassion and spirit has grown even further. I’ve long believed that the greatest gift an adult can give a child is happiness.

In return, the greatest gift a child can give us all is a smile.

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A special thanks to Save the Children ~ Hong Kong:

  • Debe Cheung
  • Queenie Mak

And Save the Children of the Eastern Leyte office in the Philippines:

  • Joanna Watson
  • Heidi Anicete
  • Cielito Barceló

And to all the volunteers and field staff that took the time to accompany and review all of the work done in the Tacloban area over the past year.

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If you are interested in learning more about Save the Children please click on one of the three sites listen below:

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