Last Word from the Road (for now…)

It has been a great last week (and change) here in Europe. I have been blessed to reconnect with a number of good friends up in Munich and Salzburg, then rolling back to my European home base in Tuscany for a few days. Now I am down in Napoli, one of my favourite cities, and I just felt like one final post here before my wee European jaunt draws to a close. I will be home for Christmas in two days now! I doubt I will have any better chance to put up a quick blog post.

I connected with eight different friends up in the very Christmas-y land of Munich and Salzburg. ‘One’ of those friends was a family of five…so it was actually twelve old friends that I got to spend time with. I was very happy to enjoy their company and catch up. I even had the chance to ride my old bike (the one that carried me nearly 7500 km around Europe a few years ago). My friend, Johanna, who now owns Yoshimi (the bike), loaned her to me for a day and I loved zipping around Munich on this familiar old friend. It felt so natural. She has hardly changed. Many warm memories flooded back.

I also got to spend time with Tiago, who I first bumped into in Madrid, at the beginning of my first European adventure. He then lived with me at Ebbio for almost two months as I rested and healed in the Tuscan hills. We grew close there. Though we only hung out for a day we had a great catch-up. Within moments of reconnecting, we were juggling and playing a harmonica (he juggling, I on the mouth harp) in the crowded Munich Central Station. We earned a few coins before heading off to a nice little Indian restaurant. He stayed with me at my good friend Robert’s place. He and I always get on well. He hosted me for three nights in all. It was fun to introduce him to Tiago. I like seeing friends from different parts of my journey connect.

I also got to introduce Bart and Felix, two friends that I met at very different points in my journey. After staying three days with Bart in a beautiful village outside of Munich, Felix picked me up and we spent two days together. He is always very interesting company.

I was also very happy to catch up with dear friends in Salzburg. Our time was brief but meaningful. I even met Krampus, Santa’s Austrian side-kick, who frightens (and maybe even beats?) the kids who have been naughty. It is a lot worse than just a lump of coal. I will include a picture below.

Salzburg seems such a natural setting for Christmas. I spent a Christmas there while I was traveling a few years ago and just wandering through the Christmas markets last week with the backdrop of mountains felt about right for the season (even though no snow had yet fallen).

After my ten days or so up north, I dipped back to the farm in Tuscany for a few days to gather my gear and get ready to head home. But I couldn’t rightly leave Italy without a little visit to Napoli. Naples is such an incredible city. There is an authenticity here which seems to attract me. The city isn’t trying to impress anyone. It is raw, dirty and very gritty. But there is such beauty. You have to watch your ass (or wherever you keep your wallet) but somehow this alertness can open you to appreciate other surprises.

This morning I noticed a lot of love in the air; couples kissing at cafes; families holding hands and window-shopping; street musicians sharing their gifts. I even bumped into a spontaneous choir singing ‘So This is Christmas’ in a large Plaza. There were a lot of cameras (pretty decent ones, from what I could tell) and I wonder if it will soon be posted somewhere online.

After perhaps the finest pizza of my life, I strolled one of my old favourite paths through the bustling city, down via Toledo toward the sea. I sat in the surprisingly warm sun on the seaside and enjoyed the scenery floating by. It has been a delightful day.

Now I am catching up on ‘housecleaning’, doing various things online that needed attention, and preparing to head home. I am off to Rome tomorrow morning and will spend a day roaming about before flying Tuesday morning.

It has been a great adventure here in Italy (with a brief jaunt north) and I feel so blessed to be alive. What a gift life is. So simple. I have surely experienced what it can be like when we complicate it…but even in the midst of our dreams and drama, life remains what it is…a beautiful invitation into our hearts.

This has felt like a very quick, tumbling, rather journaly blog post, but I hope it can bring a smile. Wherever you are and whatever you are doing, I wish you all a wonderful Christmas season and I hope you can find a pause once in a while to breathe in deeply and appreciate the simple gift of existence.

Here is a scattered array of photos from the past week or so:

🙂

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Christmas (markets) in the Air

As daylight fades behind the crisp outline of visibly distant snowy peaks, the twinkling lights of Munich’s Christmas markets draw us in. People gather together in circles, smiling and laughing, sharing good cheer. What better time for some hot wine and sausage…maybe some french fries and chocolate to follow? Big pretzels and beer always seem to be in season here. Sounds like a bit much, doesn’t it? Hot wine? Really? But everyone here seems to be eating it up. Drinking it in, too. 🙂

I have shared in it as well, of course, minus the beer and sausage. And I have to say that it is all rather charming, especially through tourist’s eyes. Almost everyone’s eyes are lit up, whether from the booze or the beauty. Hand-crafted Christmas trinkets seem to be available from every wooden hut that isn’t selling food or drink. Roasted nuts fill the air with a special scent. Folks are out shopping in droves. They seem to come from everywhere.

Munich has been hosting Christmas markets since 1310. That’s more than seven hundred years! The locals call it a Christkindlmarkt – Christ child market. And not all of them are crazy about it. My friend Robert was happy to break free of the crowds and head home after visiting two different markets with some of his friends. But even he would have to admit that we enjoyed ourselves. As we left the last market I was taken over by all the simple joy of communion, wonder and anticipation. I felt so much love as I looked around, being washed by this beautiful and fundamental feeling as we made our way out.

But there is a flipside, too. I woke up feeling pretty flat the next morning. I had eaten a lot of bready and cheesy foods and felt sluggish and heavy as I arose. I hadn’t even been able to finish my little mug of glühwein (hot spiced red wine) but I felt the glow…and its after-effects. An early taste of the Christmas hangover. It just feels like balance doing its job.

So maybe I won’t get too caught up in the Christmas chaos. I can enjoy the twinkling lights and excitement as it passes without investing in it all, hoping it will bring me something more than the joy that is already here. There is already a fullness here – this love feels maximal. Why hope for more? What if doing so plants a seed of lack in our minds?

Of course it is beautiful to share our gifts with one another and to enjoy the presence of our loved ones – and anticipation can surely be a part of that – but there is a risk of getting caught up in ‘want’ this season. I won’t point a finger specifically at the capitalist/consumerist model of Christmas, but it seems well wrapped up in it all. So perhaps just being aware of this element of the season is enough to not let it take us over. We don’t need to go over the top. We can just enjoy watching it all unfold.

And this ‘watching’ can include pain and struggle. We don’t need to look away from it. There is no shortage of pain to see in our world. Walking the streets of Munich I notice a lot more beggars than a few years ago. They seem mostly like recent immigrants or refugees. Their pain is our pain, too. And we need not avoid it, nor judge it. But we can grow simply by observing it. We need not despair. We can feel the feelings and let them pass. This can be a bigger hep than we will ever know.

The ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, the pleasurable and the painful, alternate in equal measure in this life. But this need not discourage us. It can inspire us to be more honest with ourselves and to share our hearts with those now in need. We can realign our lives with the natural lightness of being, even during what seem to be dark hours.

We can come to recognize that there is a bliss beyond all that changes. It is our very being. All true celebrations of spirit – of any path, any person, or any religion aimed at righteousness – are pointing us to this very being. This purity. It’s right here – even closer than in our hearts. Everything else is temporary.

Let the light of Christmas guide you back to yourself. Don’t get so caught up in what the light seems to shine on. See from where it shines.

***

I will be home in less than two weeks now, and happy to be with my family and friends there. I am off to Salzburg in a couple of days and then back to Italy, perhaps as far south as Naples. We shall see. I have been visiting several friends from the road here in (and around) Munich, including two cyclist buddies I first ran into in Spain…and here are a few more photos from the past days.

🙂

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Surviving the Season

All we have to do is keep breathing.

Clark

This time of year can be very stressful for many of us. It is joyous as well, of course, but there is no doubt that it can be quite trying at times. We often find ourselves stretched rather thin. There is so much to do, so many people to see, and so much to eat that we can catch ourselves wondering, in the midst of the whirlwind, how we’ll ever make it out alive. But there is a calm at the centre of the storm, and it’s as close as our every breath.

I am blessed to enjoy the company of all of my family, but even still I have caught myself in moments where my patience is being stretched and tested, wearing thin at points. It’s at these moments that I stop and take a conscious breath, feeling it pass through my nostrils, reminding me that all things pass.  This is a valuable reminder, and can help us through even the most stressful experiences.

As fun as it may be to take a break from work to reconnect with old friends and to indulge our appetites, the flip side is that we can feel as if we are falling behind in our responsibilities, losing touch with people who once meant so much to us, and gaining weight all the while. But we need not add extra stress to the flurry of thoughts and mixed emotions that can pop up at this time of year. We can simply accept whatever is happening at any given moment, coming to appreciate that it is all equally fleeting. This is a beautiful realization. Even if we harp on things or harbour resentments, in the end they will pass. The joys pass just the same as the pains. By acknowledging this we can develop a greater ease with life, enabling us to broaden our sphere of compassion and undertake greater challenges.

With this wisdom, facing a week of excitement and occasional strain doesn’t seem so overwhelming. We can keep the Christmas craze in perspective and instead honour the stillness at the heart of the season. It’s here to appreciate, if only we’ll give it a chance. It won’t assert itself as all the Christmas music, movies, decorations and advertisements will, but it is likely the greatest gift of all.  So take a deep breath and feel your shoulders release as you exhale, letting go of any other remnant tensions that have accumulated. You don’t have to give everyone a Christmas card or a box of chocolates to maintain contact. But if you’re rested and relaxed, you may be able to offer them your real presence when next you meet.

Take it easy on yourself. Enjoy the coming New Year and dive back into whatever comes next rejuvenated and ready to roll.

I wish you all a wonderful 2015, abundant with love, laughter and a light heart!

Happy New Year 2015

Leisure of the Season!

Well. Here we are. In the thick of the season. December 22nd. I finished my 10-Day Vipassana meditation retreat yesterday morning and caught a ride with my roommate back to Toronto. It was strange to finally speak to these people I had been sitting beside, living and eating with for the past ten days, and I felt a lot of energy light up in my body, having become so sensitive to my insides throughout the process of intensive meditation. Ten hours a day for ten straight days. It can really put you through the ringer. But it feels great to come out the other side. Everyone is all smiles as ‘noble silence’ gives way to ‘noble chatter’. I would highly recommend anyone check out Vipassana for themselves.

I don’t think I will go on too long today. I just finished writing a long letter to a friend, having felt urged to do so during the silence of meditation. While there we are not permitted any distractions from the work at hand, so without pen and paper I found myself composing this letter to my old friend in my mind and I feel much better having put it all down. I told my Mom yesterday that Vipassana is almost like popping zits in your mind. I have also described it as bloodletting for the unconscious. Either description will do, as far as descriptions go, but only direct experience can really teach you anything.

Some might imagine one would emerge from such intensive introspection with grand insights on life, but I don’t feel like rattling off any of that today. I’ve been through enough of that for a few lifetimes, I suspect. It will surely still stir and surface from time to time, but right now I am just happy to be home with my family and eager to meet up with my friends. I came out of my 10-day sit with a deep sense of gratitude and simplicity, and further strength to monitor the vicissitudes of my mind with calm, detached clarity. We don’t need to take our own narratives too seriously.

After these day of quiet meditation (based upon the Buddha’s meditation technique) I didn’t even think it strange to head straight to church. Love knows no walls. I feel no contradiction between any religious tradition with love at its core. It’s all the same song. So after rising at 4 AM and meditating, the transition was surprisingly smooth as I found myself in the familiar pews of my home church buzzing with the wondrous music of the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. I grew up attending Islington United Church (my father being the Senior Minister there for 22 years now) and felt a renewed sense of blessing yesterday at the great gift of community and music we share there. I felt as if I was a tuning fork just vibrating in that pew. I sensed great communion with those around me. But it wasn’t in any magical or mystical way. Life is already magical and mystical enough without me trying to build it up with fancy language. We were just sitting there sharing the beautiful experience together very deeply, in complete simplicity.

This is a wonderful time of year for reconnecting with friends and family as everyone comes ‘back home’ for the holidays. Tonight I will head back out to the east end for some more soulful, groovy organ jazz at Sauce, just as I did two weeks ago before my retreat. Funky Monday is a strong draw whenever I am in Toronto. It will surely be a fine night.

So I think I will keep it simple, short and sweet today. I just want to wish everyone a lovely Christmas season, no matter what tradition you may come from, or what you may believe or celebrate. I don’t have trouble taking any excuse to pause and reflect on my blessings, no matter what the cue may be. Love has no story to sell us. It isn’t trying to convince anyone. It just shines like the sun, for one and all. Any chance will do to stop and receive the rays seems wise to me. I hope you let them in.

As I say to my friends this time of year, encouraging everyone to lean back and enjoy the calm at the ‘centre of the storm’, a hearty LEISURE OF THE SEASON!

Leisure

🙂

Scatter Joy

Today feels like another off the cuff kind of day. I am staying at my parents’ condo in Mississauga for a few days, having arrived on Friday. I will be away from my room and routine in Montreal for about a month. My writing has been up and down in waves in the past months. When I got somewhat settled in Montreal six months ago I imagined I might soon be done revising the book I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. Nope. Just a bit more than 10% of the way there. Time to shake things up in the New Year, I think. Perhaps a new approach. I can’t say I’m all that concerned about it, either way. Those old feelings do pop up from time to time, but I don’t take them too seriously. I’ll just keep chipping away at it. I trust I can find a way to increase my efficiency.

A friend recently suggested I look at it as if cleaning out my drawers. I don’t need to fold every shirt meticulously in my first pass. Maybe I would be wiser to dump everything out on the floor first to see what is essential. I like this idea. I think taking a step back to look at the bigger picture is helpful. No need to get every hair in place if you’re about to cut it all off.

But enough about that. I am heading off on Wednesday for another 10-day silent meditation retreat. Vipassana. It will be my third sit. I finished one just six months ago. It will let out on the winter solstice, December 21st. I feel as though it is a nice way to lean into the wild Christmas season. I just guided a breath-centred meditation here in the condo building this morning, and many in attendance expressed their gratitude for this taste of ‘calm before the storm’. I think it is important to keep in touch with this fundamental silence, especially when life is about to ramp up into full gear. Everybody seems to get a little bit crazy this time of year. I am inclined to honour the calm at the heart of the season, no matter what else may be buzzing around the periphery.

As we sat together in meditation (along with a number of ‘first-timers’), I felt subtle vibrations emanating from my body. It felt joyful. It also felt intuitively ‘right’. I can’t pretend to understand it, but I simply sat there in a state of surrender allowing everything to be ‘as it is’ moment to moment, as I encouraged everyone else to do the same. We made a connection. It was a great start to the day.

Walking around my parents’ condo later today I bumped into a card on my mother’s bookshelf which declared “SCATTER JOY” in big letters on the front. It is a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He has long been one of my favourites. When I first encountered his writing it hit to my very core, and it continues to stir me from the same depth to this day. Bumping into this phrase today felt like a little reminder.

I went for a walk in the cool air and felt like I was doing the simple work of scattering joy all around me, nodding and smiling to those I passed, even stopping to chat with some. It was all so effortless, so natural. None of it was planned. It just popped up in the moment.

It’s been a strange week – packing up shop in Montreal for a month and coming back here. I have had a busy few days with a variety of events since coming home; I attended a basketball game with friends on Friday; I attended a funeral for a friend (far too young to leave us) on Saturday; and I attended a family Christmas party yesterday. It’s been quite a broad range. But all the way along, scattering joy seems to be the best work I have done. Tonight I am off to meet a cousin in the east end of Toronto for some groovy, soulful organ jazz.  It’s called Funky Monday at a bar called Sauce. I trust I’ll have the chance to scatter some joy there, too.

Maybe if we all scatter some joy in our wake, wherever we go, life will brighten up for everyone around us and reflect back for us. That seems to make sense. It even sounds obvious. No need for any profound insights or ‘big ideas’ today. I’m just encouraging myself (and anyone else up to it) to scatter some joy. Get at it!

ScatterJoy

I won’t be online next week as I am heading off for a meditation retreat. So it looks like it will be my first missed Monday post in six months. See you again on Monday the 22nd!

🙂

Preparing a Return to Work

I’ve been offline for a while – mostly eating, drinking and being merry.  It has been a great holiday season, and I will be back into my groove soon!  Keep an eye out for a new post this week.  I hope everyone has had a chance to pause in the chaos of the season and to experience some of the light that is available in such abundance.  There have been serious power outages up this way (Southern Ontario and Quebec) and despite the cold and dark, I trust there is a chance to connect with the inner light at times like these.  I send love and warmth to those still without power.

I pray that your hearts are warm and your bellies full.  Let’s all consider how we can use the gifts of abundance from this season to fuel earnest work in the New Year, serving our sisters and brothers for the betterment of life here.  Simple local action is the best way to begin.  There’s nowhere closer than your own heart!

Much love and light!