Jungle Pearls

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The rain is pelting down on my tent. It’s a first for me, hearing the pouring rain lashing out against my tent like an angry animal looking for food. I’m very proud that I have mastered the art of pitching it even in the dark by the faint light of a headlamp. My rain flap is keeping me perfectly dry but even while the rain is pouring like buckets from the sky, the heat is sweltering inside my tent. I’m stripped down to the bare necessities and still little rivers of sweat are forming in the many crevices of my skin and running down to form small puddles next to my deflated sleeping pad. God, it’s humid. I’m so hot. I’m so dreadfully tired. My feet are a total train wreck – raw, bleeding and throbbing to the touch. My foot bones feel like they have been slowly crushed between two heavy duty clamps. The effort to walk back from the dining tent to my simple shelter for the night was almost unbearable.

Our camp tonight once again is in the jungle and although next to a beach, there is no reprieve from the oppressive jungle heat. My Garmin is telling me it is 2am. I have been awake for hours unable to sleep as my sleeping pad sprung a leak earlier. As the novice camper I am, I didn’t pick my tent site well and am paying the price. I missed the memo that one should remove rocks and stones from underneath your tent seeing that you will be sleeping on said pointy and very sharp objects. Without a working pad, I’m in for many hours of misery. The rocks are digging into every inch of my aching body and I’m not succeeding to mold my form around their unyielding and hostile shapes.

Today was humbling. Not all miles are created equal and after Day 1 my blistered feet could attest that Costa Rica is not for the light weight, the wannabe and the unprepared. I switched on Day 2 to the shorter distance but still struggled to make it to the end. I found myself often collapsed on the dense jungle floor wishing that a snake or spider would rescue me from the misery of having to get up and keep moving. Which is worse, the desert or the jungle? In my opinion it depends in which one you find yourself. Both are relentless and push you to the border of your capacity, both physically and mentally. My collection of blisters grew and my respect for my environment increased tenfold, which brought us to today – Day 3. The majority of the damage to my feet occurred on Day 2 when we crossed several jungle streams and river estuaries and my feet remained wet and muddy far too long.

(Side note: Small attention to detail . . . You can wing your way through 26.2 miles on a road race but 140 miles through the roughest terrain possible in the thick of the jungle when it’s ungodly hot and humid … yeah, not so much. Henda, it’s time you show up fully prepared every time and quit bullshitting yourself about your readiness.)

February 1st, 2014 was a memorable day on many levels. It was the first time ever that I ran 10 miles in 10 minutes per mile without walking or stopping. But it was also the day I tore my ACL dancing in 4 inch boots to where I needed full ACL reconstruction in April, 2014. Bummer. Ok. . . It sucked. Ok, ok . . . It was devastating and it wrecked my athletic year. Digging out from the surgery/rehab was dreadful. I had the best surgeon possible and thanks to his guidance, I showed up at the Chicago Marathon in October. Untrained but determined to finish in the allotted time allowed and bring home some race bling, aka a finisher medal, I was unfazed by 26.2 miles in a single day race. Worst case I could walk the whole course in 6.5 hours.

Apart from finishing within the official time, I took away two very special memories from Chicago. Around mile 9 I ran into a blind man running the race with a guide. I paced with them for a few miles and was really humbled. How remarkable! Bloody Hell! I need to adjust my gratitude and training level significantly!

Then there was this fan that kept popping up along the course. She was big, bold, very blond and memorable. And … she was wearing this big neon T-Shirt with daring letters and had a humungous sign to match that said “DO EPIC SHIT!”  Yeah, let’s do epic shit. What a great motto! I’m all in!

(Side note: You guessed it. My “Epic Shit” the week after the Chicago marathon was that I paid for my entry to run The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica the end of January 2015. It’s one of the revered “tough” races in the genre – 140 miles, 6 days, rough terrain, rainforest, mountains, extreme heat, river crossings, extreme humidity, beaches . . . yeah, epic no doubt. But I needed something big to reassure me that my knee was just fine.)

Day 3 started with an eight mile stretch down a solitary beach, Playa Ballena. With no shade in sight, the sun was as much a predator seeking your weak spot as the rain and rocks just hours later in the friendless confinement of my tent. Until I can add speed to my racing repertoire, I will always find myself alone most of the time. Few crazy ones as slow as I am will show up to dare to attempt the ultra endurance stage races I am drawn to, that are my “epic shit”. My therapist and I often contemplate the attraction that these races hold for me, but that is another story . . .

Playa Ballena is not just an area where the humpback whales come during the winter, but the beach forms an actual gigantic whale’s tail visible from the air. It witnessed my physical struggle but also watched the demons inside my head fight for supremacy. The days leading up to the race, I read Eckhart Tolle’s “New Earth” and needless to say, it was a turning point on many levels. I fully embraced the concept to remove unhappiness from my life instead of seeking peace and happiness. I knew to achieve this goal means removing myself from situations and people that make me deeply unhappy. I had to be willing to let go and I had to realize that to yield is an expression of strength. The willingness of changing my happiness by removing me from an unhappy situation was not a sign of giving up or failure, but instead, the most powerful action I can take on my own behalf.

The waves were crushing around me in their never-ending ocean symphony, their foaming breakers sparkling white against the backdrop of deep blue and brilliant turquoise water.  The ocean breeze was softly caressing my face and thru the tears that were streaming down my cheeks, I was watching the tiny sand crabs frantically bolting into their burrows. Their beautiful and intricate sand balls covered Ballena’s beach like hundreds of priceless pearl necklaces strewn upon the golden sand. And like the oyster that creates a stunning gem deep inside its soft tissue from a small grain of irritation, I know that I can also overcome my struggle. “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us” – Joseph Campbell.

After the night on the rocks in my tent, when dawn broke on Day 4, I knew that I won’t be starting. It was hard to let go of my desire to finish, but I knew my stubbornness needs to learn when to bow and exit left. I stayed with the group and supported my new friends in their quest to reach the finish line on Day 6. “Tuesdays with Morrie” was my company on Day 5 in the shade of a palm tree overlooking the Osa Peninsula. The book is a beautiful homage to a great man and I could not have picked a better moment or place to get to know Morrie and Mitch.

During the celebration dinner on the beach at Drake Bay, my blood chilling screams caused much commotion. I almost took out our entire table that I was sitting at when I flung the blend of flapping wings and countless feet that landed in my lap as far as I could. Much to my chagrin it was only a giant bush cricket (katydid). My new Costa Rican friend, Ligia, took my hand and explained that the local name is “Esperanza” meaning “hope” and that it is considered very good luck when one lands in your lap. The jungle had a very special message and a specific messenger to send me on my journey home. It was telling me that I will find the courage to do what I had to, the strength to do it with kindness and grace, and the wisdom to know that it was right for me.

The next morning, as we sped across Drake Bay by boat back to Sierpe, once again my tears were mixing with the wind and ocean spray, but this time it was with the knowledge and acceptance that although I left without a medal and a finisher shirt, I brought home something far more rare and extraordinary: the infinite understanding that if you cannot let go, you will be dragged.

My Seven Deadly Sins

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My dinner for one tonight is grilled wild Alaskan salmon served over simple greens and shitake mushrooms with a glass of the Seven Deadly Zins. It is not an expensive red but I enjoy it because it is an old vine, has a nice play on words and tastes good. In my real estate world, I run into greed often and I know that no one of the seven sins are above the other, but greed must be the one that can corrupt and cause more harm to others than sloth, gluttony and vanity. I realize that lust, envy and wrath certainly can do much damage but I’m just an expert witness in what greed can do to the inherent goodness of a person.

My music choice tonight is “Nora Jones Radio”, courtesy of Pandora. I love her velvet voice washing over me like a soothing shower of warm water, stroking my worn out and tired mind. Four years ago writing was an agonizing affair. English is a second language and expressing myself caused much distress. Until I thought I may die prematurely when I was diagnosed with breast cancer when my kids were 8 and 10. I feared that I would only be a faint memory as time passed and I wanted them to know my story, my thoughts, my beliefs, me . . .and to do that I had to write . . . so I did. I’m telling them my story by having a conversation about my journey. It is honest and from my heart. Not fancy and with little pretense. It is a gift for them and although they are still too young to understand, one day they will.

Writing has become a stress release as well. I enjoy sitting down after a long day and just let my thoughts roam. I know that food is often part of my conversation and it is because I do love the intense pleasure and comfort that good food and wine invoke in me. I’m unwilling to rank one sense over the other, but I would certainly miss “taste” very much.

My most valued possessions are the wealth of memories I have collected over a lifetime of traveling, seeking adventure, fun and spending time with people that matter to me. But above all, I’m deeply grateful that I experienced being a mother. The unconditional love and precious relationship I have with my daughter and son are what matters most to me. They are my most treasured bunnies and I will die for them.

Considering my worldly possessions, my bracelet collection severely lacks in costly stones and diamonds. Instead, I accumulated them from across the globe, many times for just a few dollars from street vendors, and their worth for me is greater than any gemstone. Each holds a treasured memory and I love to glance at my wrists during the course of a day and remember when and where they joined my motley crew.

I found the exquisite silver filigree one, circa early 1920’s, in a tiny little shop on Nerudova Street in Prague one very cold November night in 2011. I passed the shop on my way to a special concert at St George’s Basilica near the castle. For more than 1,000 years the walls of St George’s Basilica have stood witness to people seeking solace within. How fortunate was I to stumble upon a music concert of Vivaldi, Mozart, Bizet, Handel and Brahms right as dusk was setting over the city. The music filled the austere space but half way through the concert, my feet and fingers were frozen and I could not help to wonder how people kept warm there in 920 AD.

Exiting the Basilica, night had fallen and I saw the Cathedral in its nocturnal illumination for the first time. Ok, I know I declared my love to the Charles Bridge in an early blog post, but certainly I can share my love! It was utterly spectacular. And I saw it without the gazillion tourists rushing to catch the next stop on the tour. Did I say spectacular? Let me find the ways I can sing about its beauty – oh, wait, I cannot sing. Seriously, it was astonishing, brilliantly, fabulously stunning. And it was just up the street from my little hotel that dated back to the 15th century. Inspired by the beauty that surrounded me and the music that caressed me earlier; I entered a small antique shop and fell in love for the third time that day. The bracelet was solid silver and several intricate filigreed Egyptian scenes circled its delicate frame. It was more than I wanted to spend and I reluctantly left it behind. But I could not let it go. Every day I passed by the shop and decided that if it was still there on my last day, then I would bring it home to Dallas. I always wonder about the women whose wrists it had encircled for the past 90 years. How did an Egyptian, silver work of art ended up in that little shop in Prague? And how glad I am that it now resides in Texas.

Another favorite I seldom wear today because it has become very fragile, I bought for $2 deep in the heart of the Peruvian rain forest from a very old Inca man. We visited their primitive hut and spent a couple of hours learning about their rituals and customs. In its center the wooden hand-carved bracelet has a woven pattern that reminds me of a complex spider web. Very thin strips of corn husks were used to create the pattern and it has slowly become unraveled. When I wear it today, I always remember the fateful events post my breast cancer surgery that led to a heart attack and my stay in an intensive care unit in Arequipa. The bracelet reminds me how we can overcome so much when we allow ourselves to confront our demons.

My oldest bracelet dates back 50,000 years and I found it in another little shop near Denali in Talkeetna, Alaska. It is also solid silver and has oval shaped disks of wooly mammoth ivory tusks. As the tundra has slowly been melting, these tusks are coming to the surface and the locals use it to carve beautiful pieces. I love this bracelet because it reminds me of the majestic beauty of Alaska. It ties me to the beauty of a land so wild and large where I could feel the presence of nature everywhere. Every day it reminded me that it only tolerated our presence briefly and that nature could reclaim its legacy at any moment. It was alive with large scale animals and it has been the only place outside of Africa where I felt the presence of nature so close. It is not for the soft and faint hearted and your spirit must be large to rise to the occasion of living there. If you let it, it will allow your spirit to soar alongside the bald eagles. Alaska inspires you and leaves you knowing that you must hurry back.

(Side note: My next trip to the untamed land of the north was in the dead of winter to chase the northern lights! I wrote about their brilliance in “Gifts and Gratitude“)

Of course no collection of mine would be complete without several pieces from South-Africa. Most of them are inexpensive beaded leather straps bought next to roads or in local markets, but I do have a couple made from woven elephant hair. I also bought a thick copper one from a street vendor in Johannesburg and I try not to think that the copper was probably stolen phone wires that were melted down to peddle to tourists! I do own another very thick and chunky one that I bought at the curio shop while on safari near the Kruger Park. It’s carved from antelope antlers and inlaid with solid silver. Wearing it can be risky as the silver easily snares clothing, but it is a favorite too.

My salmon tonight came with a twist. Whole Foods had fresh king salmon as well as fresh ivory kings tonight on offer. I love all fish but after spending much time in Alaska, wild Alaskan salmon holds a very special place on my plate. Like my bracelet, the Kings take me back to the remote lake we fished in deep in the Alaskan wilderness and only accessible by private seaplane. Our bush pilot was a rugged native that detoured to fly us over an ancient glacier and across wild summer tundra filled with moose, brown and grizzly bear. From that trip we brought back 70 pounds of halibut and salmon. After six months of Henda’s fish dishes, my kids suggested we switched back to beef!

I tasted both pieces of king salmon side by side and concluded that the ivory king was a little too mild for me. I like my king salmon with all the robust and strong flavor promised within the deep color of its flesh. I know that only 1 in 1,000 salmon yield ivory and although I always embrace the unique and one of a kind, in this case, I prefer the common over the rare. In closing, as I raise my glass to the Seven Deadly Zins; my life is too short for any of the deadly sins, except for my version:

Lust – The strong desire to live life with all my might

Gluttony – To savor the intense pleasure of good food and wine every day

Wrath – My anger flares intensely when the innocent suffers

Envy – I have none – What is the point?

Sloth – I think they are very cute in the wild and “laziness” will never describe me

Vanity – Mmmm . . . as long as one sticks to the good side of it and pride

Greed – I have so much fortune, need little and want less . . . life is too short . . .my greed is wanting to live a quality life for as long as I can.

My Heavy Checked Bags

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This morning in bed while waiting for daybreak to catch up to me, I contemplated that if there was a bag check fee for the soul gear I drag around each day; how much would mine be assessed in overage charges. My self-allotted limit of three pieces certainly makes me carefully consider which of my checked luggage I want to re-pack and lighten to become carry-ons.

My first bag I shall call “trapped ”. I completely understand the content of this bag as it is luggage I have schlepped around with me daily for a long time. Not only do I suffer from the fear of being trapped in an unfulfilling life, my fear of being stuck extends to include being imprisoned in a world that requires me to conform to rules and regulations that I object to. The pedestrian day-to-day causes me to feel locked in a cage with the keys gone missing. My “trapped” meter can only go so high before I have to take myself to a place where I can reboot.Certainly my cancer diagnosis and heart attack (thanks to pericarditis: a virus that attached my heart lining) in the summer of 2009 contributed massively to my desire to make each moment count. The urgency to do just to every day makes my objection to the tedious particularly taxing.

I have carefully considered which bag to put forth next as I only have two left. Excess baggage charges certainly apply to this one. It’s the one I have dragged alongside for the longest time. It has been a dead weight because I refused for so long to acknowledge that I even owned it. It has been the elephant in my room and it took decades for me to have the courage to pick it up, open it and start to remove the unnecessary from it. Inside is the deepest and darkest of my pain as well as a raging fury whose intensity is a scorching fire. Its force requires me to treat it with the respect that one reserves for an unclear minefield in Angola. It has only been this past year that I have been ready to acknowledge that this bag belongs to me and needs re-packing. I’m an accomplished, successful, confident and well-adjusted woman with the deep scar of being abandoned, neglected and abused as a child. It is the shame and guilt that rides with being discarded, of not being enough, that causes the excess charges, and it’s only my willingness to finally acknowledge that it was neither my faults nor my shortcomings that caused me to be left as a child, that will make this bag eligible for a carry-on. I’m working on it. My ability to even claim this bag is evident of my readiness to reduce its size and to know that my strength today is far superior than either the pain or fury left from my childhood. My goal is to leave this bag empty and discarded in my attic. I don’t need to carry it anywhere.

The melodies of my solo piano music, courtesy of Pandora Radio, is soothing me tonight. I’m enjoying the silence of my own company. A simple dinner of duck breast with sautéed spinach and walnuts, with a baked Japanese sweet potato, accompanied by a nice Cab, rounds out my feast.

Apart from being seriously challenged with direction and not remembering people’s names very well, my other large shortcoming is packing for a trip. Ugh. I suck at it. I cannot plan ahead of what I would want to wear, let alone consider what the weather will be at the given time. Therefore, I have no talent to pack light or lay out a well thought out wardrobe for any trip. Because of my large feelings of inadequacy when it comes to packing, I’m famous for leaving it to the very last minute. It’s almost like, if I can avoid it to the last minute, maybe I will discover the gift or art of a great packer in the nick of time. One of my most famous trips was two Thanksgivings ago when I went to Prague solo. I had to run to Stein-Mart down the street to buy a new bag 40 mins before I left for the airport and literally had 15mins to pack for a 10 day trip in the middle of winter. Needless to say, my bag was a disaster. In every way. Dragging that bag thru the airports, train and bus stations in Europe was a joke. What made it even sadder was that I had to buy another bag in Frankfurt on my way back just to pack all the stuff I wanted to bring back.

So, after much consideration, my last bag is a crazy, overstuffed, rugged and worn duffle. But I like duffel bags. I like the fact that they are not rigid and that you can squish them into tight spaces. They also carry the cool factor. My favorite is The North Face “rolling thunder”. It’s a large 120L duffel on wheels in a beautiful azure blue or fire truck red and it certainly is a shout-out piece on the carousal that nobody will mistake for theirs. It’s on my list of gear I want to get this year.

Badly packed and full of unnecessary items, this particular duffel full of my personal chaos causes me to have to sit on it to close the zipper. It’s full of all the stuff that I need to re-organize and discard in order to turn it into a lean and mean duffle ready to travel anywhere at a snap. Yeah. Lots of work needs to be done. I doubt that much of these items can be totally discarded as they all make up the sum of my many idiosyncrasies.

It includes my desire to focus on the wonder of my day and let the mundane be in the supporting role. It is the part of me that over commit always, because I make promises without regard to my schedule and then find myself in a tight spot trying to balance my day. It very much includes my impatience – for everything. The counting to 10 really doesn’t work for me.  I acknowledge and accept that patience is a gift I did not get and that it is an everyday struggle to strive to obtain. And I fail at it often. Urgency . . .  It is close partners with the rest of my motley crew bag . . . I fear that I will run out of time today before I’m ready to go wherever we go next. So everyday becomes a race against time – well, maybe not quite that graphic. Just a general, intense desire to spend my day well, and do the things that count the most, and keep bettering myself as a person. Oh, and there are also these other things stuffed in my bag   … some road rage, frustration with bad service, unwillingness to accept a steak that is not medium-rare, just to name a few.

I dream of being better at this. I desire to have a nicely packed bag where everything is organized neatly and stacked in zip-lock bags. I want my bag to come off the carousal and I can look at it and say “wow”, “how super- efficient, super-cool and light“. But more than anything, I want to only have a carry-on. I want to reduce my three heavy bags to be limited to one that can fit under my seat. I want to travel light through my world, free from charge.

Becoming The Wind

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Salmeron-0487am. I had been wrapped in my sleeping bag for less than two hours, fully clothed and exhausted beyond logic. My feet were a throbbing and swollen mess and covered in blisters that were a chilling reality that I could drop out of the race at any checkpoint. It was the start of Day 4 on the long stage of Grand to Grand, a six-stage and seven-day fully self-supported foot race spanning 170 miles from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the summit of the Pink Cliffs of the Grand Staircase in Utah.

I had already covered 96 miles over three days and just spent 24 hours on my feet in the effort to complete the 54 miles of the long stage. I arrived at checkpoint 6 at 4:30am after a grueling 8 miles over 4 hours in the dark of night. Never before had I been enfolded in total darkness and had to navigate my way by the small beam of my head lamp and the faint trail marked by LED lights scattered across the black of a night landscape fraught with steep, sandy and unsteady terrain. “Keep moving” was the endless mantra of my meditation as I forced my legs and feet to execute the demands of my mind. My 15lbs race pack was digging hard into my shoulders and back and the desire to drop it became overwhelming.

Checkpoint 6 had hot water and was one of the sleeping checkpoints on the 54 mile long stage. It’s regrettable that in my effort to save a fellow racer from dropping out, that I inadvertently compromised my own race plan. We met at checkpoint 4 as we were the last two racers making the cut-off. He was in bad shape and wanted to quit. Quit. Really? No way! No bloody way! I convinced him to continue to checkpoint 5, six miles ahead of us. Saving him from quitting became my most important focus and although I felt strong and able to run, I matched his speed of less than 2 miles an hour, thereby adding significant time to my own journey. I learned that night that withdrawing from a race is a very personal decision and I had to continue to checkpoint 6 alone in the pitch black of night by myself.

Dawn broke as I left checkpoint 6 with approximately 17 miles left on the long stage after a short reprieve and a much needed cup of hot soup. The next 4 miles were spanning across the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah. Near Zion National Park, this is the only major sand dune field on the Colorado Plateau. I timed my departure so that I would see the sunrise across the dunes. I knew that crossing the dunes after already been on my feet for 24 hours would be tough, I just didn’t know how challenging.

Alone once again, as I was the last runner to leave the checkpoint, the sand dunes were covered in the chilly shadows of early morning. Daunting, and with the wind whipping hard at my body, I sought out my mantra of “keep moving” to focus my mind on the task at hand. Each step made me sink calf length into the sand. My gaiters kept the soft pink sand from eroding my blistered feet any further but the exhausted effort to dig my legs out of the sand abyss with each step was staggering.

So often I have encountered pure wonder. Sometimes it has been while scuba diving, or on mountain tops or in the simple pleasure of a spectacular sunset under a big sky in Dallas. Frequently it is because I seek out the art of living a life lived well. I have learned that there is incredible beauty in each day. However, the miracle that the sunrise over the sand dunes in Utah bestowed on me will forever be etched in my mind and heart. It was the gift granted to me from this extremely tough and relentless endurance race.

Salmeron-015The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho was on my 9th grader’s summer reading list and out of boredom on a flight from Costa Rica I read it. What a read. What a story. If you have not yet read it, read it now.
As I watched the sunrise that morning in Utah over those dunes, stripped from every ounce of veneer, exhausted and on my knees in the sand, I discovered that I too am an alchemist.

(Side note: I’m the little figure on the dunes in the picture.)

(Side note: Alchemy is the art of liberating parts of the Cosmos from temporal existence and achieving perfection which, for metals is gold, and for man, longevity, then immortality and, finally, redemption. Thanks Wikipedia.)

Santiago sets out to find his destiny and personal legend and after a long journey he had to transform himself into the wind to save him from execution. As the wind was whipping around me and the sand was hurling itself against my skin on the dunes, I too realized that I can become the wind.

Like Santiago, I believe that when we reach through the Soul of the World and see that it is part of the Soul of God, we discover that it is also our own soul. And that we can perform small miracles every day.  I finished the 54 mile long stage in 31 hours. It was brutal, unforgiving and liberating. It forced me to rise beyond what I thought was possible. It pushed me to a new frontier in my mind. The journey was awesome. I went on to finish the 170 miles of Grand to Grand and I earned my beautiful silver finisher belt buckle. There were many moments during the seven days that I was left breathless and inspired by the beauty of nature and the splendor of the human spirit. However, sunrise across the dunes will always be a special bead in the necklace of my soul.

Gifts and Gratitude

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Maria Callas’s beautiful voice is caressing me this morning and the blend of it, along with the daring and bold way the sun is illuminating the freshly washed world after days of rain, is a wonderful cocktail.

Named “Grace” in Yiddish and a verb “to happen” in Icelandic, ”Henda” certainly does not allow me much anonymity in the online world. A few keystrokes on Google will lay out a roadmap for any stranger to know much about me. However, our online personas are just one facet of the sum of our parts. To really know me, you must spend time with me, talk to me and listen to the story that is uniquely mine. Like peeling the layers of an onion, online data today is just that, the thin outer skin.

You will discover that finding the splendor in ordinary moments and everyday life is important to me. I’m told that I struggle to accept that the mundane dictates most of our day-to-day. True. I decline to accept. Instead, I seek out the magic in each day and allow the mundane to co-exist. Each day that I live is a gift I shall never take for granted. I know that my two very close encounters with my own mortality shaped my thirst to drink my life from a gushing fountain instead from a glass. My gratitude that I learned early to live without reservation is boundless.

When we sit down and talk you will learn that I struggle intensely with the Christmas season. I find it deeply commercialized and wish that so many business bottom lines were not tied to the spending habits leading up to Christmas. I have a desire each year to spend time in a country that does not celebrate Christmas just so I can escape the sheer frenzy of so many people’s urgency to buy and buy and buy. This year I wanted to take my kids somewhere to show them the magic beyond the distraction of commerce. I wanted to install in them a sense of wonder and an understanding of a gift not measured by any monetary value. I wanted to blow their minds.

A few layers deeper, you will realize that I don’t find God in a church. Instead, my cathedral exists on mountain tops, under a desert night skies and witnessing the glory of a sunrise or sunset. It’s the lavish gift that nature bestows on me that allows me to embrace the glory of God and the magnificence of creation. It’s in that space that I can hear my thoughts and find comfort in my heartbeat. I can be silent. I intentionally seek out these moments daily and it’s their greatness that overshadows the ordinary of every day.

The aurora borealis (northern lights) has been on my bucket list for a long time. Before scientific explanations, they were perceived as omens and prophecies. Their radiance stirred as much fear as it instilled wonder, and they became part of our superstitions and fairy tales. I had a profound need to witness nature’s most impressive light show personally. It was my gift to my children this Christmas.

Elusive and as natural as air; finding them takes special effort if you don’t live in the far north. But often the journey to discover a Wonder can be equally rewarding. We arrived on Christmas Eve in Yellowknife, the capital of the far Northwest Territories of Canada, just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and it was -35F. Frigid, icy, freezing, frosty . . . sorry, none of these words accurately describe what “cold” feels like! My eyelashes were frozen after a short walk down the block and little icicles quickly formed around the hairs in my nose.

I rented arctic gear for us as the warmth of our own ski-clothes was utterly inadequate. Even then, you find yourself dressed four layers deep under the bulk of your outerwear. After an hour outside on a snowmobile, I had to bite back the tears as my feet and hands were hurting so much from the cold.

(Side Note: Yellowknife sits on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North-America at 2,014 feet, and the 10th largest in the world. Each winter an ice road is made linking Yellowknife with Dettah, a fishing camp that has been occupied by the Dene people for hundreds of years.)

At 9pm on Christmas Eve we drove 30 minutes out onto the Great Slave Lake on snowmobiles to a little cabin away from the city lights. Optimum aurora viewings require clear and cold nights, with prime time between 10pm and 4am. Without any guarantee that there would be any aurora, my expectations were high and I could only hope that my Christmas wish would come true. After about an hour, faint green ribbons were crossing the sky. Elated, I rapidly started taking pictures, hoping to capture their beauty. Slowly they intensified and my camera was able to display reds surrounding the green that were not visible by the naked eye. The frigid air caused you to linger for brief intervals outside before you had to seek warmth inside the cabin.

At 10 minutes past midnight, Christmas morning, the sky burst alive with a light show my imagination could never envision. The solar wind that collided with Earth’s magnetic field at that moment produced a magnificent array of colors. Red, green, violet and orange ribbons were twirling and skipping above the frozen tundra. Covering the entire night sky and dwarfing the stars, it was as if the glory of God was dancing across the heavens. I wanted to reach up and hold them close. But like true Wonders all I could do was allow myself to be swept into a visual and sensory celebration of life.

My camera ran out of battery power earlier that night. I’m glad, because no picture could ever capture what we witnessed. The images are forever burned in my mind and I shall often enjoy the memory of a Christmas night like none other. My gratitude for this gift is endless.

I have seen the sunrise over Mount Everest and Machu Picchu, listened to the thunder of Victoria Falls, gazed upon the Taj Mahal and recently camped at the remote North Rim of the Grand Canyon. If we continue our conversation, you will find that seeking out the Wonders of our world bring me much joy, but that it is the small miracles of each day that matters most.

Agony and Ecstasy

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Zen music is softly piping into the room and my face is gently cradled in the doughnut pillow of the massage table. My sore muscles are eagerly awaiting the expert touch of the therapist and the promise of relieve from the hell I inflicted on every part of my body the day before. The spa menu at La Posada in Santa Fe reads like the who’s who of indulgence: Rejuvenate, Spirit of Santa Fe, Renewal, Restore  . . . After much contemplation I selected “Rejuvenate” and surrendered myself to 80 minutes of pampered bliss.

The prelude to my rejuvenation was a lovely lunch on the patio with a celebratory glass of fine New Mexican Gruet accompanied by a ceviche avocado salad and Kobe beef tacos in Napa cabbage leaves. Wrapped in my soft Spa robe in a nice shady spot next to the swimming pool, I allowed the chatter of a group of soon to be newlywed youngsters to transport me into a deep siesta.

It was a far cry from 24 hours earlier when I poured trash cans full of ice in a bath tub at the Holiday Inn Express in Los Alamos. My legs and feet were still covered in the fine black ash from the high desert I just returned from after a grueling 10.5 hour battle to the finish line of the 2nd toughest 50k (31.2 miles) race in the country – The Jemez Trail. I reluctantly forced my limbs to fold and stretch into the freezing water, knowing that the ice bath will bring relieve from the throbbing and speed up recovery from the self-inflicted inflammation of my tissue and joints. I could only hope that my neighbors would not take the screams coming from room 325 too seriously.

panoramaThe black dirt clinging firmly to my skin was a harsh reminder of nature’s fury when a mountain burns.  All day the evidence of the Las Conchas fire was unmistakable on the trail. Solitary charred stumps were the only tribute to the once majestic ponderosa pine forest that was violently destroyed by a sea of orange flames. But I was amazed how quickly new growth sprouted green amongst the black of despair, evident again of the resilience of nature.

My therapist Stacy had begun the herbal exfoliation and quickly the room was filled with the intoxicating smell of sandalwood, sage, and peppermint. While the mixture was drying on my exposed skin, she expertly massaged my feet. “Oh, yes! Please don’t stop!” my feet were rejoicing in ecstasy. Shame . . . poor babies . . . but unlike previous races, not a single blister scarred their surface. Did I finally stumble upon the elusive answer to my feet? Before the race I lathered them in Body Glide prior to double socking in Injinji toe socks and Drymax running socks. Amazing . . . From now on a tube of Body Glide will be within easy reach.

I’m not naturally an early riser and getting up at 3:15a would never be part of any daily routine. Rising at that hour with the sole purpose to eat two hours before the start of an ultra endurance race also firmly classifies me to the “abnormal” group. Although not known for routine, I’m a creature of habit when it comes to race preparation. I may pack for an international trip 15 minutes before departing for the airport, but I meticulously lay out my clothes, gear and food in a neat and orderly row the night before a race.

As I sped in my little grey nondescript rental car to the start line, I questioned the logic of a 50 mile race at this stage of my training. Am I really ready to take on the distance? Am I willing to accept the genuine possibility that this will leave me with a DNF (Did Not Finish) next to my name? On paper it sounds very attainable  . . . 3.3 miles an hour at a fast walking pace certainly can be done. But 50 miles is a very long way.

picThe 5a start meant that 167 “abnormals” were congregating closely with little head lamps as dawn was still waiting in the wings. The almost full moon’s light illuminated the landscape in a silvery glow and the mountains were shapeless black silhouettes against the horizon. Large and ominous, their sheer size reiterated that I was not in Texas. We were off. I slipped into an easy pace and kept my eyes glued on the spot that my head lamp was painting in the dirt trail. Swiftly the terrain changed to very uneven and treacherous, and my inexperience quickly caused me to slip to the very back of the pack. Oh well, it was nice to run with the group for a few miles. I almost felt that I belonged, even though, unlike my fellow trail runners, I was wearing a 10 pound racing pack and running with Leki sticks.

In front of my eyes, the black of night transformed into the deep indigo of dawn. Mother Nature held its breath with me as the imminent fiery ribbon of the rising sun was about to crack dawn wide open. I never tire watching the drama of a new day unfold and count myself lucky to witness such a grand display surrounded by the majesty of the Sangre de Christo range. This is why I came . . .  to be reminded again how singularly remarkable nature, and life, is.

My 6:15a arrival at the five mile check point put me well within my goals. Feeling strong and confident, I had high hopes that the day may exceed my expectations. Then we started to climb . . . Thesaurus has several other words: scale, ascend, scramble, rise, increase, mount . . . but I’ll just stick with climb . . . my bravado vanished like cotton candy in your mouth. By mile seven I knew that I would be switching to the 50k as the 50 milers climb this mountain twice. I reached for my iPod since I needed music to help propel myself up the steep mountain side. It was a 4,000 feet vertical ascend to the summit of Pajarito mountain at 10,400 feet and the runners resembled a chain gang slowly working their way to the top.

My heart and lungs were exploding and I was gasping for air with each laboring step. My Garmin Fenix was dutifully recording the altitude and my progress at about 45 minutes a mile. When I finally emerged from the dense pine and aspen forest, my panoramic reward was breathtaking. To my east, the vista stretched over the Rio Grande Valley towards the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and to the west, over the Valle Caldera Grande.

bench(Side note: On the summit of Pajarito ski mountain stands a bench with expansive views of the mountains as well as Valles Caldera National Preserve. The bench was constructed in memory of Steven Karl Yeamans, skier, biker, rafter, machinist, photographer, and all-around well-liked guy. He died short of his 40th birthday but I have been unable to find out how. I would really like a bench high on a mountain top and will make sure I designate funds in my estate for its construction. I hope my friends will come to visit, and linger, while enjoying the magnificent view. And bring a good bottle of red or a fine French Champagne and lets reminisce about all the good times we shared.)

Back in my little haven of bliss, my freshly exfoliated skin was ready for the next phase of pleasure. The massage. I selected the “Buddha” scented oil and soon my limbs were just a pile of mush under the expert touch of Stacy. I allowed myself to be transported back to the moment in the race when I could almost glimpse the elusive runner’s zone.

During a race, I enter my dead zone after about a third into it. I start to lose interest and become a plodder. Music cannot pull me through and the whiny voices in my head drive me crazy with their unstoppable “Are we there yet?!” This time though, I had a secret weapon: Audio books!  The wonderful essays of David Foster Wallace about “Consider the Lobster” and “How Tracey Austin Broke my Heart” allowed me to arrive at the second to last checkpoint with a new leash on the final nine miles.

(Side note: A skill one learns growing up in South-Africa is how to squat in the bush without getting your shoes wet. And thanks to my trainer Mo, I can also hold a wall squat these days for four minutes. Needless to say, needing to pee on a trail race sometimes necessitate a fast and artful squat maneuver. Particularly when the high desert has no large trees to hide behind and the front runners of the 50 miler start to overtake you!)

finishLeaving the aid station with the end in sight, I decided it was time to flip the switch. My “finals” playlist has me trained like Pavlova’s dog and I only switch to it in a race when I’m ready to let it rip. My feet was flying over loose rocks and sand, and I could feel the power and energy surge through my body. I tackled the downhill skiing thru the loose sand on my feet but never hesitating in my quest to fly. For the next seven miles I was transported to that sacred place that real runners regularly visit when they are in the zone. During my short visits I grasp the allure and know the power of that place, both in one’s mind and in the harmonious execution of muscles, joints and bones, all working together in a symphony of motion. For now I’m happy to just stop by on the occasion.

My 80 minutes of bliss is rapidly coming to an end. My new friend Stacy gently informs me that she will be waiting for me outside with bottled water. My time in the Land of Enchantment was terrific and rewarding on every level. Maybe next year I will be ready to take on that mountain twice and write 50 miles next to my name, but today I’m content with 50k and a quiver overflowing with arrows of joy, triumph and delight.

Allow me to quote my other friend, Theodore Roosevelt: “It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at the least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

Identity

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For many years I have kept a drawer in my heart filled with the want and hope that one day I could move back to South-Africa.  I have wrapped myself in the comfort of a blanket with stars and stripes on one side, and the rainbow flag of the new South-Africa that I left behind on the other. I have proudly affirmed myself an “American  African” to anyone inquiring about my origins, and although I raise my hand across my heart during the Star Spangled Banner, I must confess that except for the first and last lines, I don’t really know the words. I also don’t know the words to “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa) except for the few lines in Afrikaans found in the middle. I guess that makes me a pretty pathetic American and African patriot.

Identity plays such a role in our formation of self. Who am I? What defines me? What expresses my uniqueness, my character, and that part of me that makes me the one of a kind that each of us is? I left South-Africa at such a young age, full of rage for the unfair hand of cards I drew growing up in a world that required me to battle when I should have been allowed to just play. My fury raged against the forces that took away my childhood innocence at a tender age when I should have been just loved unconditionally. I was angry at the unjust years of struggle to redefine my destiny using just my own unwavering faith and strength that I would never allow myself to just become another statistic of circumstances. When I left the country of my birth, I left with the intention of never returning. I left with the burning desire to find a safe harbor, a port where I could drop my anchor and reinvent the identity of a very battle worn soldier. I was coming to America, the land of great opportunity and a new beginning, the land where dreams as big as a Texas sky come true.

Thirteen years later, in 2006, the tragic and untimely death of a very close and special person led me back. Like a very premature salmon run, I returned to the place of my birth. And I discovered that under my new found American heartbeat, my African blood was running strong. I recognized that my blanket was always double sided and I wished that I could one day come back to live in the country I was from and reclaim some of the missing years. I fell in love all over with the beautiful African light, the incredible vibrancy of an African life, and the way my soul is quiet and at peace when I’m surrounded by the African bush.

But . . . the years I spend in Texas and Dallas have been mounting, and the drawer filled with longing for my African dream has become much smaller. Like so much else, life happens when we make other plans. Slowly over the course of the past 23 years I have developed a deep love, not just for this wonderful country, but also for the great state of Texas and for Dallas. Last night I watched the sunset over White Rock Lake and the downtown skyline. This is my city, my ‘hood and my comfort. I’m proud to call Dallas home.

The inspiration to this blog started because I contemplated my own very recent Texas roots against a 7th generation Texan. How can it ever compare? Does it make me so much less of a true one from the Lone Star state? No, it doesn’t. Instead, what matters is the desire and commitment from both of us to want to make Texas the best place through our efforts and energy, both for the newbies like me, and the many generations before and after.

(Side note: I intended to write this blog about my love for all the special places in Texas like Big Bend, East Texas, Austin and the Hill Country, BBQ and Caddo Lake. Be patient. It’s imminent! )

I spent three weeks in South-Africa last year and during the trip I finally accepted that I’m American with just enough African spice to be different. It makes no sense to carry a dream of relocating “one day” to a country where I have no family and I really don’t belong. Instead, I shall visit often to satisfy my hunger and feed my African soul. In the meantime I’ll learn all the words to the Star Spangled Banner and show my deep gratitude for every opportunity presented to me by this great country.

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