Monday, December 22, 2008

We Needed Some Time Apart

Sometimes it is good to have some space from your significant other. No matter how well you get along with your partner, its good to get some fresh air. After a long talk, my bike and I have parted company for Christmas.

I am in Wales. It is so nice to be back in a country where my native tongue is spoken. I am chilling with Louisa and her family. All I have to contend with are enormous meals, some tricky accents, lots of tempting alcoholic drinks, and Wii controlers flying across rooms. It sure a nice contrast from the daily uncertainy of the journey and the cold wet and windy roads of Rotterdam.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Me, the Amazing Traveler in Rotterdam

Rotterdam?  What the heck am I doing in Rotterdam?

Yesterday, after departing from Oosterhout, navigating onwards from Breda, successfully collecting my new passport in the Hague, launching new website updates, and then catching the tram towards my ferry, I sat back and thought smugly to myself:  "Russell, you're The Man.  You are good!   What an amazing traveler you are!  This is just too easy."

I remember thinking and feeling something similar in my second week living in Costa Rica.   The next day I was abruptly fired from my job and set on the streets not knowing the language or having any place to go.

My tram pulled up at the connecting bus station.  I waited for half an hour before thinking of checking the schedule of the bus that would take me to the night ferry that would cross to England.   I checked.  The bus line had just stopped running for the evening!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I then experienced a feeling I haven't felt in a while:  Cataclysmic Panic.   

The only other way to get to the ferry was to head all back the way I had come,and catch two connecting trains.   I had given myself lots of time.  There was still hope.  My heart was beating fast, I couldn't believe it was happening.   

Now, Panic is not the best state to be traveling in.   You tend to attract disaster.  Aye... Not one, but two trains broke down on me.  I missed my first connection.  Then, the second broke down in Rotterdam and everyone had to get out.  I couldn't believe it.  Things had been going so good!   
Rotterdam was windy, cold and rainy.  I had to find shelter under an awning to crack open my laptop and do some emergency calls and searches.   The sleet picked up.   It was 12:30 AM now.   If you think I was stressed-- imagine Louisa who had helped arranged my travel and who was expecting me in the next day!

Long story short.  I found a hostel.   They even gave me a discount and a beer on the house.  I slept very, very well.

So what is the lesson here folks?   

Well, next time I start to think I am an amazing traveler, I will immediately slap myself in the face.  I will then put myself on Amber alert.   The feeling seems to be the precusor for disaster.  Its is as if the universe feels obligated to teach me some humility.

Of course, my Costa Rican "disaster" was also the precusor of an amazing three years in the country.  It thrust me fast and furious into interactions that formed the foundation of my time there and the most amazing and life changing experiences.   

Hey... is that a For Rent sign on the apartment across the street?


Friday, December 19, 2008

Until the Next Moment

La vie est belle.  

This morning, as dawn broke, I cruised down the smooth cycle paths of Osterhout, Holland. Viva la Vida, played in all its splendor on my iPod. The moon hung like a silver shard in the turquoise sky. Its half darkness a reminder that our moments are inexorably immersed in luminous cycles. Of light, of darkness, of loneliness, of love.  

I am a cyclist.  

A lad from London pointed this out to me on the train the other day-- the philosophical connotation that is. In that sense, we're all cyclists. Its one moment to the next, with our life patterns undalating waves that cycle us from people and places and situations. With each new moment we spiral a tad higher. Perhaps we revisit a similar place on our pattern, but its always from another vantage. Through honesty with ourselves and others, slowly but surely, we remember who we are.  

Of course, every once in a while, the gentle spiral slips into a cascading revelational rollercoaster. Then things get interesting. And intense. And fun. And very special.  

What an crazy and amazing time I have had here in Holland. 

I stopped my bike on an Oosterhout bridge. Underneath, the cars zoomed by in each direction. In the highway-side canals, the now lilac morning sky reflected in the still water. I breathed deeply. A flock of birds crossed the horizon.  

Onwards they flew.  

Onwards I go. 

See you soon Louisa!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Hague

I am constantly amazed at where the flow of my journey takes me.  Today, I stopped on a busy bridge, surrounded by embassys and the ornate archtecture of the hague's diplomatic core.  Underneath my feet the water was perfectly still-- the buildings reflected in its dark gaze.  

I've made a pilgramage to the Canadian embassy here to replace my passport stolen passport.  

And here I am.

The last few days I've been swept away in a roaring rush of interpersonal revelations.  Its been pretty crazy.  I have written hundreds of words that I've typed over the last three days as I have been confronted by one situation after another.  All in the small, quaint town of Oosterhaut.  Who would have thought?  I was supposed to be taking it easy here!  

  Today, ironically, making my way to the busy diplomatic nexus of the Hague, has been one of the most languid and relaxing days for a while!

Honesty.   Its a simple word.  But so is gun powder a simple substance!  Honesty can take you to explosive places where life takes on a fiery intensity.   But also meaning.  And colour.   As we all known, fireworks and their vibrant explosions of cascading colour, can be quite sublime and beautiful.  

I've been striving to follow Honesty's harrowing path.   What a ride.   

Next:  the 3 AM writings!


Friday, December 12, 2008

I am Happy

My friend Jarrett, told me a story about how he took his peace portrait for my 1Mandala project.

Apparently, he waited for several weeks til he felt just the right combination of joy and peace.  When he hit it, he called his quickly called to his partner "Quick get the camera! I am ready!"  They scrambled around and found the camera and he beamed out some great vibes.

I am happy. 

I have had a glimpse of the beautiful workings of the universe and how it is bringing me, and others, the experiences we need to heal and grow. Things that I thought could only be bad, have somehow twisted and transformed into blessings and deep connections. Its as if, I've come out a long shaded valley and risen to the crest of a green hill. From my perch I can see ahead and behind-- the path does indeed run straight and true! The forest was not dark, but rather cool and refreshing. I knew it all along, but somehow nearly forgot.

Fortunately, unlike Jarrett, I have a built in webcam on my laptop! Listening to a nice song, it hit me that I too had some great vibes to shares. That's my peace portrait.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Reddified Compositional Clarity

Oh yes... I am a visual artist... not a writer! Given the epic essays I've been typing of late, you might think I had forgot!

Here's a photographic piece that was composed one day wandering the streets of Brussels in a flu filled daze. I came across a Jewlery store window filled with lush textures, intriguing forms and rich colours. I was captivated by the sensual reds. Perfect setup for a little abstract composition.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

From Dark to Light

From dark to light:  A frosty field Dutch field is illuminated by the first light of dawn.  My first day in Holland.

This morning, at long last, I rolled into Holland.   I sit in a cafe in the heart of the ornate city centre of Breda.  The cathedral looms above me as the first morning shoppers stroll through the tightly packed streets of shops and cafes.   The church bells ring as I type.   My French press coffee is ready.  With not a little relief, I press it down.

I am 10 kms from Oosterhaut, Holland.  My arrival there is a bit of a landmark in my journey.  

Way back in Pittsburgh, in the midst of a hot and humid summer day, I met a Dutch woman on a bustling city bus.  Two travelers sharing the same seat in a sea of locals.   It was a most dazzlingly unlikely place to meet another traveler.    Something resonated.  We strolled through the streets together and she invited me to pass through her little town in Holland when I reached Europe.

 I said I would-- not really beleiving that one day I would actually feel the Dutch air on my face, wipe the morning frost on my tent, and caress the smooth bike paths of Holland with my tires.

As my journey has progressed and my scheduling and geographic expectations have melted into futility, this is one destination that has stuck.  And so, this afternoon, rather triumphantly, I will ride into Oosterhaut, Netherlands-- a town nobody in Northern Belgium or even here in Breda seems to have heared of.  Yet, strangely, it has gathered a nexus of meaning for me.

I have a long awaited and emotionally symbolic package with my winter equipment at Abby's address.  I also have some profound philosophic and personal realizations about relationships culminating simultaneously.  

 Its great traveling and meeting people.   Yet, the act of traveling and not resting long in one place completely reshapes how one engages in relationships.  From new friendships to romantic relationships, it is all effected.  How can I expect someone to have a 'normal' relationship with me when I am by definition moving on?   How can they expect that from me? 

The definitve brevity of my encounters makes them all that more rich and profound-- and ironically, that much trying to move on from as the road beckons me on.   It forces the other and I to be deeply present for the moment of togetherness.   This is of course, is a recipe for beautiful experiences.

But...  Aye.   It is challenging.   It is rich and intense and fantastic, but at times it is heart rending.

At one level I am dazzled by how I have manifested and attracted people and situations exactly as I have conceived them pedalling along on my bike.  Experiences to learn about myself in.  That's what relationships are all about I beleive-- by getting to know others we get to know ourselves.   

Of course, its not only I attracting them into my life, but they attracting me into theirs!   This goes for the folk who randomly meet me on the road, to people I stay with geographically or in spirit.  I gotta admit, I am a bit of a character biking the world like this-- it strikes me that for people to attract me to them, they are manifesting a very unique experience often at a pivotal moment for themselves.   Its humbling to play the role.

On days like today however, I get a little daunted by the challenge of all these beautiful yet fleeting meetings.   I have but one respite-- being in a place of honesty and intuition.  Fear and insecurity urges me to turn away and hide things.  It is %@&@% tough sometimes, but keeping things clear to myself and others is essential.    Lessons can only be read learned when the reading light is turned on!  We're all learning something here.

My friend friend John Kirby, likes to stop, laugh and say "Its all just a big game Russell... we're hear to remember who we really are, and to do so by living grandly and richly".  

 As we all play the game together, its good to remember that.   John was good at laughing.   As my foolishness and my wisdom bring me these intense experiences,deeply and dazzlingly intertwining me with others, its good to just laugh at the wonder of it all!   So much better to living so richly and intensely-- we have nothing to loose!   

And of course, we're getting exxxaaactly what we asked for!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Holland Ho!

Hurray! I've made it into Holland. My tires are now crusing the smoothest, most amazingly cycle friendly paths that they have ever touched!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Laugh and a Goodbye

Last night, I decided to chill out in the lobby of the hostel, here in Antwerp, where I am staying.  I fell into a conversation with a lad from Ireland.   After a lengthy discussion on the merits of various sci-fi films I decided that instead of going for a beer at the pub I would retire for the evening.

"You know the Belgians at the pub are always open to talking to people.   You should really get out and meet some locals before you leave Belgium"

His impression immediately struck me:  He thought that I had been holing up in the Hostel during my time in Belgium and hadn't been meeting people!

I laughed a little too loudly back at a the poor chap.  

It him me then, just how blessed I have been in meeting locals.  Of course, many backpackers and tourists pass through and hardly meet any locals.  It happens all to easy.

However, I have met, talked to, stayed in the homes of, walk with, dined with, dozens and dozens of locals-- if not hundreds.  I've had tea with Belgians from 4 years old to 90 years old, from the Walon side to the Flemish side, from the city and from the farm, from mentally challenged to univeristy professors.   The reason I was decided to stay inside was to recover from my intense "anthropological adventure"-- as the Irish chap put it after hearing a few of my tales.

Very soon my journey will lead me on from Belgium into Holland.   

Wow... I could never in a million years have expected all this stuff to happen to me.   In Belgium of all places.   Looking back, I am blown away by the kindness and generosity of the Belgians.  You wouldn't expect it on first glance.  The Belgians seem very preoccupied with their country's crazily divisive cultural and political situation.  They are also immersed in living the the Good Life.   But give them a chance to be generous, and wow!  Look out.

On my way in to Antwerp, I asked directions from a lady.   Her and her husband were biking in the same direction so they bid me to follow.  Then they invited me into their house.  Then they invited me to stay the night.  Then to a wonderful dinner and conversation!    Leaving refreshed and happy, I met another cyclist, only three minutes down the road.  He invited me to follow him to the centre of Antwerp.  Then he bought me an Antwerpian beer!

I have nothing but good things to say about Belgium as I depart this wonderful country.

Man... I wonder if the Belgians will even let me leave!

Thursday, December 4, 2008


I write from Antwerp Belgium.  I am cycling through.  I am at a little cafe in the downtown area.

I am in this city trying to decide whether to stay or not.  Here lies a warm bed, comfort and a cool place to visit for a day or two.   The road leads to much uncertainty, the unknown and no definite place to stay.  If I stay I maintain an illusion of strength.   If I go I show weakness and vulnerability.

I can't decide which to choose.  I've been here at this cafe for an hour now.

To stay and wait, or to go onwards?

After writing this down the choice is all but existential.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

El Paradiso del Cyclisto

This morning, I woke up in a Flanders Forest   I may still be in Belgium, but it feels like another land.  But its not just geographic.  Its existential.

I have emerged from the cycling Hell of Brussels and Charleroi to the Gates of Cycling Paradise.   Brussels is a cross between an ultra modern and refined European city and a third world capital-- the traffic infrastrure is actually there, but no one respects it.  Chaos ensues.  I am basically proud to be alive after going right through the centre and out!

But, Oh My Goodness.  It is beautiful out here in Flanders.   There isn't just a one cycling lane on the sides of the roads.  There's one on each side!  They are specially paved and marked.   And there's not just one on the main road.  They are on every road!

Little old ladies, men on their way to work, and in particular noticed all sorts of beautiful women cycling around.   Its amazing!  Not to mention, that everywhere there are open WIFI networks.   Cycling paths, beautiful cyclists, good coffee and WIFI.  

I am in Heaven.

Apparently, this is just the Gateway though... Holland is supposed to be even more cycle friendly!   

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Power of Mandalas

While passing through Landrecies in Northern France, a family invited me to camp on their lawn. They also invited me in to their home for cofee and conversation. Their seven year old daughter and I started drawing. I showed her how to make a mandala.  She caught on to the principles of symetry and reflection immediately. It was pretty cool to watch. Above is her mandala! In the end, the whole family gathered around the table to help her and I colour it out.


Alright, this entry might get a little philosophical and tad lengthy.  I have been thinking much about Mandalas lately and need a place to put my thoughts to words.

When I first began working and researching mandalas, I read how: (spoken in a deep narrator's voice) "mandalas are an ancient spiritual tool with great power for healing and self-discovery". Sure, sure, I thought. Just some more New Age superlatives and fancy-dancy terminology.

Nonetheless, in my two years experimenting with mandalas, I cannot help but be deeply intrigued by their power.

Last week I made a mandala out of some leaves.   It took an hour kneeling on the ground to compose. Yet, after putting it on my blog, that hour and that little creation, made all sorts of ripples. Now, we're not talking tsunamis, nor even waves here, were talking tiny little ripples! A friend used it for a birthday card cover, another for the cover of art publication, and another was inspired to make her own leaf patterns. I received several comments on my blog and who know what else. It was a simple picture, but it seemed to have a subtle and compelling effect.

Subtle is an important word here. Mandalas don't make a big splash, they simply have a subtle yet inexorable effect. The natural balance and geometry that one is compelled to follow when making them, helps focus and intensify one's intentions. One cannot help but become focused, indeed meditative, when drawing, building or creating one.

When one looks at a mandala, a similar meditative compulsion arises-- although not nearly as strongly as in the process of making one. Its as if the intention put into building a mandala subtly spins off as it as observed by others.

But this isn't magic or supernatural stuff.

Its the basic principle of intention. Intentions are of course thoughts that are put out and have effects. Intentions can be put out in all sorts of forms-- a book, a clothing design, an essay, a request, a blue print, a blog post!   Intentions have effects-- its simply a natural process of how thoughts manifest reality. However, the strength and coherence of intentions is what makes things happen.   The focus and strength of an intention determines how far the repercussions of the thought actually go forth. Mandalas, as their geometric and meditative character focuses intention, naturally work their subtle "power" in strengthening and furthering intentions.

Now, where things really get interesting, is when you start building mandalas with other people!

 The Tibetans are famous for their sand mandalas.  These are built by several monks working together for days if not weeks. Here, the intentions of many are focused and synchronized. We've all been splashed by the tide when two or three waves happen to fall in sync and splash up twice as far on the beach. With collaborative mandalas, I beleive the same principle is at work. The harmonizing power of collaborative mandalas magnifies their power exponentially.

Another great example of collaborative mandalas are the rose windows in cathedrals.

 I've been greatly appreciating rose windows as I pass through centuries old towns in France and Belgium.  Cathedrals and rose windows are everywhere. In many ways they are the crescendo of a cathedral's construction. The structure rises and is built with the rose window as the most distinct and striking element of its design. The design of the rose window distills the whole particular theology of the Church. If the Church is catholic, it will have saints in it, if its patron saint is X, then X will be a focus, etc. The significance of these windows is again subtle yet powerful. In some towns the rose window design was plastered on historical boards, pamphlets and signs.  The unique theology of the window manifests and continues to influence how the religious community defines itself historically, in the present and will so future.

Standing in the cathedral in Amiens, France it struck me that building a collaborative mandala on the Internet, is in many ways the parrallel of building a medieval cathedral. Eight hundreds years ago, the entire community, city and surrounding area, would labour for dozens to hundreds of years to build their cathedral. The edifice that spilled outwards was a grand collaborative effort that manifest the highest technology and spiritual thoughts of the society.

When I contemplate all this, I get shivers at thinking of the power of building a grand mandala with people from all over the world. There is some serious power being tapped there.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Fufiling a Prophecy

Thomas Moore, in Care of the Soul, writes that we should try to bring more mystery, magic and sacredness to our daily lives.  Well, how about fufilling a prophecy?

You don't get to do that everyday!

A week ago, Brother Edward and I were chit chatting at the abbey about the reasons he became a monk.  He shared that years ago, as he prepared to enter the Scourmont Abbey, he had been at an evangelical Church, where somebody had prophesized about him.   They claimed that he "would touch thousands through the apostlelate of the smile".  In other words, he would spread light and love through his smile.

But how do you do that when you're a cloistered monk?   He didn't think much of the prophecy at the time.  

Well, I can vouch for two things.  One, Brother Edward has a great smile.   You feel it when he laughs and talks jovially with you.   Two, he has surely touched hundreds of visitors as they have passed through the Abbey.

As he spoke, I had a strong intuition.   I knew immediately it was essential I get his peace portrait for the 1Mandala project.   It wasn't easy-- snow storms, his limited availability, and bad lighting, meant I had to be very intentional about getting his photo.  But, together we did it.

Maybe its just me, after having got to know him, but I love this peace portrait.   I will be using it as one of them premier inspiring photos for the 1Mandala project.   If you're on the list, you'll be seeing it shortly.

And so too will 'thousands of people'!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Pain and the Pleasure

Can you have one without the other?  Last night, making my camp in a lonely Belgian forest, I decided to treat myself to a warm cup of coffee.  Alas, the transition for my newly adjusted teeth from cold (its kinda cold out here even in Belgium!) to warmth was too much.  I lay in agony in my little tent until my aspirin took hold.  

Yet, I am euphoric to be back on the road.   Freedom!   The open road.  The unknown.   Its immensely fufilling to be soaring across the Belgian coutryside.   I am following a canal into Brussels.   The trail is flat, car-less, and the water beside me still.  The trees reflect into its placid surface disturbed only by the languid swim of the ducks and herons.   Half the time I am riding with no hands-- arms outstretched to the sky.  My teeth are improving daily fortunately, and if anything the sensations deepen my consciousness of not only my food and drink, but of my moments.

I sit in a nice, warm cafe in Halle-- a town along the canal on the way to Brussels.   A long long time ago, Gerry remarked that my journey was taking me not only geographically but linguistically into the unknown.   I was have left English speaking Northamerica, to slightly, differently spoken England.  Then I moved to France, where my second language has been put to the test.   Then to the French part of Belgium, where French is spoken not only with a different accent but different terms and words.  Now, today to be precise, I have emerged into the first town where Dutch is the predominant language.  People still speak French, but not as much.   The balance will slowly change as I move North to Holland.  No more French there!

Yet, this linguistic barrier is proving to be another pleasure.  I love the challenge of languages.   It seems that challenge, lack of comfort, dare I say, even a little pain, are the harbringer of pleasure and satisfaction.   I tell you, tonight when I sleep in a real bed, in a warm house, it will deeply pleasurable!

"Ein cafe ass tu blief"

One coffee please!


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Goodbye Comfort. Hello Open Road

I have been at the monastery in Belgium for over two weeks now.  

 It has been nice.  Oh my goodness. It has been nice.   

My long cycle through France to get here was an intense exercise in existential uncertainty.   Day in and day I knew not where I would sleep or eat next, nor shower, nor wash my cloths.  Everything of course worked out marvelously, but it was a tad intense.   It was in this state that arrived at the monastery.   I marveled and beamed gratefullness at everything from the small cot to the warm showers.

Not only have I had three square meals a day, my own room, a killer WIFI connection, my own wood paneled office with vaulted ceilings, showers any time of day, and even laundry access, I've had a limitless supply of coffee and Belgian beer!   

And the monks really seem to like having me around.   They've taken pleasure in introducing me to the many other visitors and groups that have passed through.   A handful of these grand encounters I've recorded on the blog.

Normally visitors can only stay a week.  They Monks have more than bent the rule for me and have insisted I stay longer to wait out the bad weather.  Not to mention, their help with my teeth and our late night talks about art and life.  They still insist that if I wish to stay longer, I can.

Yesterday, Pere Jaques and I took a walk through the woods around the Abbey.   Its beautiful out in the expansive fields, orchards and forests of the monastery.   He lead me to a cabin in the woods-- a hermitage.   Equiped with a wood stove, kitchen, electircity, fire wood, bedroom and all the fundamentals.  He was basically offering to let me stay here over the winter.  My own place.  No rent, free meals down the path.  Electricity.  Gorgeous location.  

Alas, there comes a point where one must push on from comfort. 

My journey and the open road are calling me.   Iam reminded of some lines by Walt Whitman.   

"Allons! we must not stop here, 
However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this dwelling we cannot remain here, 
However shelter'd this port and however calm these waters we must not anchor here, 
However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are permitted to receive it but a little while.

...Allons! the road is before us!
It is safe -- I have tried it -- my own feet have tried it well -- be not detain'd!

Its cold and snowy outside.   I leave with only my summer sleeping bag and gear that just barely was sufficient during the Fall.   Yet, the road beckons.  What lays before me I know not.  I leave restored physically, spirtitually and dentally.  The 1Mandala project has progressed in leaps and bounds.  My cloths are clean, even my spice container is refilled.

The Unknown looms before me.   It offers no promise save that of no more comfort and of mystery.   Definitively daunting,  my heart beats faster and my palms sweat.   

Yet, the Unknown beckons.  

Allons!  On the Open Road towards Brussels I now head!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Baguette Forest

I was going through my notes yesterday when I came across this journal entry.  It was never posted on my blog.  the experience happened a month ago while cycling through France when I was out of Euros and couldn't find a place to exchange my pounds-  not that I had much to exchange!   I never posted it because its seemed almost preposterously surreal.   Hearing the Lord's prayer today-- "Give us today our daily bread--   has inspired me to share it.

This morning, I awoke in a field far from any towns.  It was a crisp clear day as I poked my head out of the tent.  However, that past night, I had finished off my remaining food supplies.    I snacked upon my final apple, drank some water and set off a little hungry. 

Eating is important when you're cycling each day.  I wondered to myself: "What am I going to do for breakfast?"

My road took me into and through a lush oak forest.  The sun was rising and the golden rays were beginning to come through the yellowing canopy of leaves.  A dirt side road caught my eye.  I decided to turn off.   It looked like the perfect place for my morning yoga.  I cycled in a leisurely 50 metres or so.

It was then that I noticed the baguette. 

 It was on the side of the little road, untouched, not even dirty.  I cracked it open. It was all but fresh.  Then I noticed another. And another, and another!  Literally dozens of baguettes were scattered down the forest road for the next hundred meters.  They were at most a day old, completely clean and untouched.  It had rained that morning, and these had not been touched by it.

I was in awe.  More, fresh baguettes than I could ever need!  I felt like a character from the Old Testament blessed by mana falling from the sky.  

I knelt down and praised the universe.

As I got up, I discovered the chestnut.  I had been shown in England and in France how to eat them.  There were fresh, ready to eat chestnuts, everywhere.

What a breakfast.

Addendum:   The baguettes that I collected that morning, paired with a bottle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, lasted for three to four days.   The bag of chestnuts that I collected lasted two weeks.  As I leave the comfort of the Abbey, this is a good experience to remember!

Yoga in the Church

Here at the Abbey, morning mass occurs everyday after breakfast.    The mass, with its echoing spiralling chants is beautiful.  I feel compelled to go.    However, on the road, this was usually the time when I would do my morning yoga.

The collision of habits, yoga and Church, is proving intriguing.   I am not Catholic, nor can I follow all of the French liturgy.   To enrich the experience I have been doing Yoga during the service.

One of my great partners, Gabrielle, showed me how to do Tadasana.  Its a seemingly simple yoga pose where you stand perfectly straight.   She told me how at a special workshop for yoga instructors, her guru had them work on the pose all day.   There are endless subtleties in just standing tall to work out!   Conveniently, you blend right in with everyone else who is standing up!

Early in my voyage, I had a landmark 3 hour conversation with Bojan, a chiropractor and his wife, a massage therapist, about posture, energetics, and personal beliefs.  One of his observations was that Christian religiosity tends towards bad posture-- just think of the image of bowing in prayer or lowering one's head in humility.   In my travels since, I have been observing the veracity of this in congregations across cultures and, alas, in myself.

By contrast, in Tadasana you stand tall and breath.   As the mass progress, as the chants flow, I have been working on this.  One's posture completely effects the way one absorbs one's world.  It is a great way to absorb the 'vibrations' of the mass.

 In an another encounter this summer, I met Patrick, a sound healer.  I really didn't think much of the concept, that is, until I experienced it first hand in a forested limestone gorge near Galstonbury, England.   Wow.  Deep, carefully crafted sound waves reverberating through your body can be a powerful experience.  It can take you quickly to higher states of consciousness.

Patrick, would totally dig the chanting here.   A Parisian priest I met yesterday observed: "You close your eyes and the chanting lifts you directly into communion with the Lord".  

A blizzard hit Belgium and it snowed again last night.   I am compelled to stay yet longer.  I really want to get back on the road and I am getting ancy.   

Standing in Tdassana, breathing deeply, and absorbing the deep intonations of the chants is fantastic way to immerse myself back in the moment.   The timing is as it should be.  I am indeed in a beautiful space.

Monday, November 24, 2008

With Gratitude

click to see larger version

I've been feeling enormously blessed lately.

My time here at the Abbey in Belgium has been one of peace, recuperation, and of creativity.

What a great combination. The peace has served to inspire not only the recuperation, but the creativity. Here is my latest painting, done in my time recuperating. It is a gift to Pere Jacques and the Abbey. It reflects how I feel about my rich and harmonious moment here.

The title is: 'Avec Gratitude' or 'With Gratitude'.

I was a little concerned on how it would be received. One never knows with aesthetic taste over culture and continent! There is art here in the Abbey, however 90% of the pieces have a guy hanging on a cross.

However, Pere Jacques immediately put it in on prominent display in the cafeteria. Visitors and staff have been commenting favourably on it every since. Yeay!

The best is at lunch when I get to listen to people talk about it who have no idea that I am the artist! After a while I get to step in and say with unique authority: "I think the artist really meant to say..."


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Belgian Kids Make Snowmen Too

Yesterday Pere Jaques and I went for a walk outside in the freshly fallen snow.   We made our way to an old farmhouse that the Abbey uses to host children's retreats.   There was a group of a dozen or two Belgian kids visiting-- scouts.   I was impressed by their progressive balance of genders!   In Canada scouts tend to still be all boys.

We were invited in for hot chocolate and cake.   The kids had just been building snow men outside.   Yep.  They do it too!   Apparently its quite rare to have snow like this at this time of year in Belgium and it doesn't stay for very long.

One thing led to another and I was talking to the kids about Canada over our hot cocoa.   I talked about how we have snow that stays all winter, the ways kids play in it, how cold it gets, etc.  You know, reinforcing all the good old Canadian stereotypes!  

However, they were particularly interested in our animals.  Bears to be precise!   If you hit a bear on the nose what will he do?   If you try and run, can they catch you?   If you take their food away do they get upset?  etc...

Hopefully, twenty years from now, somewhere in Canada's North, my answers will prevent the needless loss of life of several Belgian tourists!

I am Special

Oh my.   

It has snowed here in Belgium.   It is officially Winter.   This is sure going to make cycling interesting.  I am reassured that it will melt shortly.

I am now decidedly special.  How many other people are cycling across Europe in the middle of Winter?  

Hmmm.... perhaps 'unique' is a better word. 

Perhaps even 'insane'!

Friday, November 21, 2008

I am not a Serial Killer... Really!

Alright.  This post is a must read.  Especially for all of you out there who may have doubted the verity of some of the crazy tales I have told on this blog -- Vaughn!  At long last I have solid proof for my reality!   

In fact, it was even published in the Fortworth Star Telegram in Texas.

Waaaayyyyy back in steamy July, when I was riding through West Virgina, I met up with Buzz and his family.  A splendid evening followed.   I had promised to follow up with an e-mail but, alas, I lost the business card.  

I blogged here on the experience and it was soon buried into the data detpths.  There it lay, until just last night when I came across it in my archives.   Some web searches later, and I was able to drop Buzz a line.

It turns out, a professional writer, he too wrote about the evening! 

Now, I am a little biased, but this is tremendous stuff.   It was a chore not to wake up the monks by laughing out loud when reading it.  I am quite amused by how similar it is to my account


By Buzz McClain


            Something happened this summer that has stayed with me for a month and a half. It was a small thing, but as they say in the field of education, it was a learning moment.

            I took my 10-year old son Luke and two of his friends to our cabin by the river for an overnight stay. Tyler and Trevor are at that nutsy cuckoo stage where everything is funny; and they are, by and large, action-oriented kids. That said, I think Tyler watches too much TV, plays his video games too long and listens to his iPod a bit more than he might.

            But who am I to judge? I remember doing my homework while simultaneously watching the entire primetime offerings of whatever TV station was on. But of course, at our little cabin there is no TV, no DVD player, not even a GameBoy. The entire place is wireless – as in, having no wires. For entertainment we dig fishing worms.

            In any case, after a very, very hot day of cavorting in the river we adjourned to the bonfire and for some reason I just could not get the massive pile of wood to burn, no matter how many old copies of my wife’s Us and Hello magazines I piled under it. Realizing we required advanced technology, we made the quick trip into town to the Dollar General for lighter fluid.

            Coming out of Dollar General with our hands full of bottles of flammable accelerant and medieval foam swords (come on, you cannot go into Dollar General with three boys and not come out with foam swords), I saw a young man snapping shut his over-burdened panniers on his 10-speed bike. He picked up a well-worn map from the ground and carefully inserted it into a plastic holder on his handlebars. He was wearing compression shorts and a nifty old-fashioned shirt that tied across the placket with laces, pioneer style. He was not, as they say, from around these parts.

            He mounted up and pedaled to the parking lot exit which drew him near our truck. And that’s when I asked: “Where you headed?”

            He grinned and said, “Berlin.”

            Well, I knew there was a story there, because we were a good, oh, 10,000 miles from Berlin, Germany and as far as I knew, they haven’t finished building that bridge across the Atlantic.

            “Where are you staying?” I asked. It was near dark, and if he was camping he was going to be pitching his tent with a flashlight, as there are no public campgrounds for miles.

            “Oh, I’ve got a little tent,” he said. “I’m not sure where I’ll pitch it. Somewhere.”

            “Well,” I said, “you can do that, but we have a cabin not far from here that has a spare bed and a shower.”

            There was a slight pause while he took this in. “A shower?” He said it in that disbelieving way you do when you hear something that’s too good to be true.

            “Follow us. It’s about half a mile.” I rolled up the window and as we pulled onto the road I noticed how quiet the three boys had become.

            They were stone-faced in shock. In fact, there were tears in Tyler’s eyes.

            “What’s up, guys?” I asked.

            “Dad,” Luke struggled to say, “he could be a serial killer.”

            “Mr. McClain, we just saw ‘The Dark Knight’! He could be like the Joker!” Trevor said. “He could kill us in our sleep.”

            “Guys, guys! Calm down. He’s a guy on a long bike trip. He doesn’t need any help. He didn’t ask for anything. And he doesn’t want anything. But he’s been on the road a long time, and a soft bed and a hot shower will feel good. Sometimes you trust your instincts about people.”

            The boys were not convinced, not by me, anyway, but by first-hand exposure to Russell.

            As it turned out, Russell was an artist from British Columbia, from the area way up near Alaska, and he’d been biking more than a month. He was on his way to New York to catch a plane to London where he would buy another bike and pedal to Berlin where he hoped to receive a commission for an art installation.

He specializes in oversized mixed-media mandalas; imagine symmetrical snowflakes made up of photographs or fruit or tiny army soldiers – he’s done them all. I know this because he showed me impressive photos of his work on his iPod touch, a gadget I hadn’t touched before that.

He had the 32-gig version, and that baby could fly. Really remarkable fluidity. Not that I want one for my birthday or anything.

As it happened, Russell was at the Dollar General because of his iPod. “I’ve had the worst day of the trip,” he said. “My iPod fell out of its case, got caught in the spokes, snapped off at the headphone jack and sent me into a ditch and broke my sunglasses. I was getting new headphones and sunglasses when we met.”

Russell said the highlight of his day was our home cooked meal and cold beer, plus getting our bonfire started to the delight of the boys. What can I say, he’s Canadian, he can start fires.

But as the fire burned down to a warm glow in the dark I found Tyler sitting alone on the swing near the woods. He was crying.

“Is it because you still think Russell is going to kill us in our sleep?” I asked. (May as well just lay it out there, right?)

“No,” he sniffed. “I just want to go home. I can’t explain it. I want to watch something.”

“We’re watching the fire,” I pointed out. “We’re catching fireflies. We’re throwing glow sticks. This is better than TV.”

“I just want to watch something,” he repeated. “I want to go home.”

Taking Tyler home – three hours away – was out of the question, but he was sobbing like there was no end in sight.

And that’s when I remembered Russell’s iPod touch. “Come with me,” I said gently.

We found Russell in the kitchen. “Say Russell, can Tyler check out your iPod?”

“Sure,” he said. “Here. I’ll boot up a game you can play. This is a cool one with race cars. If you turn the iPod the screen turns too. See?” Tyler put the earbuds into his head and was lost to us for at least 45 minutes. When he finally relinquished the iPod to Luke and Trevor he’d recovered from his previous misery.

Long story short, Russell’s day was saved, Tyler’s night was saved and three boys learned that sometimes you can give something to someone who doesn’t need anything, not knowing they might give you something back.