Santa Fe is a city full of artists and those who love art. As a social worker, I have often thought about how my major function is not the process of creation, but of alleviating suffering. The former adds something positive to the world while the latter attempts to remove something negative. Both are necessary tasks, but if I had to choose one wouldn’t it be better to add something beautiful to the world rather than just remove a negative? This question has been gnawing at me for some time and Santa Fe gave some insight. More on this in a moment, but first a bit about Santa Fe...…

Picture
Canyon Road is a narrow little street lined with over 100 galleries. Creation drips from the buildings like the water run-off after one of Santa Fe’s infamous monsoon summer rains. The city’s central Plaza is lined with Native American artisans selling their wares. On Tuesday evening we were lucky enough to hear live music there as well. 

Picture
Arthur's Chicken & Our Salad
In regard to accommodations, we found our host Arthur on couchsurfing.com and he was gracious enough to host us for 3 nights in his beautiful adobe home. He owns a business producing and selling leather journals and is a connoisseur of Chinese teas and the Zen Shakuhachi flute. He baked us delicious scones, smoked us sumptuous chicken and whipped up some home-made margarita ice cream while we shared with him our asparagus & carrot salad with cilantro-almond pesto and traditional Bulgarian banitza (puff pastry with Bulgarian cheese and egg). Arthur’s multiple creative endeavors inspired us and brought us great joy.

Finally, we visited the Upaya Zen Center where the dharma talk by teacher Sensei Beate Stolte helped me resolve my gnawing question about creativity.  In true Zen fashion, I realized that I have been setting up a false dichotomy when pitting creativity against the alleviation of suffering. Creativity brings joy both to the creator and to those who enjoy the creation. When joy moves through people, they naturally dissolve pain for themselves and others. The alleviation of suffering, on the other hand, requires creativity to be truly effective. When a social worker aids a person who is in a difficult circumstance, the degree to which they can imbue their own creative spirit into the process as well as encourage the client’s innate creativity is the degree to which positive outcomes will occur. In this way, all of us can practice “creative compassion” - whether it be finding creative ways to be compassionate or by inspiring compassion and joy with our creativity. 

Picture
Neda getting smooched by a bear on Canyon Road
View the rest of the pics here. Next on our journey is a 9 hour trip to Oklahoma City and brief stopover before heading to Springfield, Missouri to catch up with Neda’s old peeps for the weekend. Enjoy your weekend everyone!

 
 
Picture
Meditating at Zen Center
For this post to make sense, it might help to put this whole trip into context. In large part, Neda & I have been planning this “mini-retirement” as a part of the fulfillment of our marriage vows. When we met, I had always wanted to do a period of more intense meditation in a monastic setting and we were able to do that together when we moved to Austin and did a year of residential practice at the Austin Zen Center. Neda supported this dream of mine and also enthusiastically participated in the growth opportunities that the Zen Center afforded us.

Neda’s dream was traveling the world and experiencing new places and cultures. She had been considering the Peace Corp when we met in St. Louis, but our budding relationship turned her attention elsewhere. So in some ways this adventure is an intentional honoring of her dreams and my commitment is to enthusiastically participate the same way she did with the Zen Center. In other words, to continue to weave our individual dreams together into the fabric of our shared life and values.
Picture
But the actual framing for this trip as a “mini-retirement” came out of the book the Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferris, which was recommended by Neda’s friend Chris Curtis. In the book, Ferris talks about avoiding the deferred life plan – the idea that you need to wait until after retirement or until after you have saved some set amount of money to start doing the things you’ve always wanted to do. We allow fear-based reasoning (i.e. I won’t have enough money, I can’t do this without health insurance, if I leave work for a period of time I’ll fall behind, etc…) to persuade us to continually defer our dreams.

Picture
  Our experience at the Grand Canyon was a giant affirmation that we must imbibe the nectar of life with the feverish passion a man lost in the desert would bring when stumbling upon an oasis. The awe-inspiring rocks of the Canyon stare down at us with the impersonal gaze born of 2 billion years of experience. They whisper to us of our fleeting existence within the scope of geologic time and implore us to live our dew-like lives to their fullest.

Picture
  As we left the old masters of sandstone, shale, and limestone at sunset, the animals of the region chimed in with their own chorus to remind us of our fragile mortality. Neda & I were traveling along route 180 at nearly 70 mph on our way to Flagstaff after the sun had set and darkness surrounded us like a cloak just beyond the edge of the Camry’s headlights. Suddenly, a gigantic shape misted into existence right in front of us. I slammed onto the breaks and just managed to swerve around a massive elk standing in the middle of the road.

Picture
There were 3 elks like this one
 As I dodged around the first elk, a 2nd was leisurely walking directly into the path of the Camry before finally recognizing the car for the threat it was and thudding out of the way. 

Neda & I were both shaken by this near death experience. Our host in Flagstaff said it was not uncommon for a car to hit an elk head-on and have the frame go under the legs of the beast while the passengers in the cab met a grisly end slamming into the torso. Like the whispering of the canyons, the elk was another cue of the delicate impermanence of our lives. 

These universal cues are all around us if we pay attention. And if we take these cues to heart, we can integrate them into our lives with the decisions we can control. We can choose to not turn away from a loved one out of anger or frustration, to open ourselves to new opportunities despite our fear, and to love openly even when we risk getting hurt. The lesson of the canyons and of the elk is that we have no time to waste. We cannot subscribe to the deferred life plan because life is simply too fragile and precious to defer. We must each pay attention to the cues in our universe so that we might start adopting a “preferred” plan life plan over a deferred one.  
Picture
Picture
See the rest of the pics of the Canyon and a couple from Oak Creek Canyon as well here.
 
 
You've probably heard the concept of the vicious circle, whereby one negative event makes the next event more likely to be negative, which in turn makes the next event more negative, ad infinitum… The opposite of this idea is the virtuous circle, yet so far on our trip Neda and I feel like we have been flowing through more of a “gracious cycle” and it has been a tremendously opening experience.  

We arrived in Phoenix to the abundant hospitality of Erin & Mike (Neda’s old friend from Springfield and her husband). Together we shared a wonderful dinner at a chic restaurant (the Windsor) and had a great night hanging out.
We departed for Sedona the next day and after a fluid session of hot yoga at a local studio, were greeted by Jean & Rich, the parents of one of Chris Nigro’s friends. Chris is one of Neda’s former co-workers and friends who was gracious enough to connect us with the couple when he heard we would be in Sedona.

Picture
Cathedral Rock
 Jean & Rich have a wonderful home overlooking Cathedral Rock (we hiked all the way up to the "thumb" in the picture) in the heart of Sedona.                           They welcomed us into their home on Friday and gave us great tips on seeing Sedona. Saturday morning we shared breakfast together before they guided us on an enlivening hike all the way to the top of Cathedral Rock.    

Picture
Along the way we crossed Oak Creek and enjoyed the Zen rock sculptures that had been built in the middle of it. The red rocks of Sedona are perfect places for hiking and finding stillness. The porous sandstone absorbs iron as water passes through it, giving them a red tinge and unique electromagnetic properties that many believe give the place spiritually grounding properties.

Picture
On the rocks with Jean & Rich
So now we get back to the concept of the gracious circle. As we have received so much love and care from those on our journey, it has acted as the iron that flowed through the Sedona Red Rocks for so many years. It infuses us with graciousness and compassion - making us more open and loving people. As the rocks here continue to give inspiration to residents and tourists alike, Neda & I aspire to pass on the graciousness that has been given to us. Reb Anderson (a Zen Teacher we practiced with in Austin) taught us that to treat all of life as a gift is a challenging and rewarding spiritual practice. It calls us to embrace the seemingly difficult people and situations in our life as unique opportunities for growth that the universe presents to us. We can choose to see them as obstacles (thus creating a vicious circle of constriction and pain) or see them as gifts (and thus part of a gracious circle). We are going to do our part to continue the gracious circle - are you with us?


Picture
Top of Cathedral Rock together
To see the rest of our Sedona pics, click here:
 
 
Tuesday night we pulled into Fort Davis and met up with our friend Pat’s nephew Wesley & his partner Laurie. They generously hosted us while we explored the area. Fort Davis is the highest town in Texas, so despite the time of the year, the weather was windy and refreshing. Nighttime found us heading up into the Davis Mountains where the McDonald Observatory straddles the top of one of the hills with its gaze always turned upward. We joined hundreds of other travelers for a “Star Party” – a weekly event where the Observatory astronomers break out a bunch of their telescopes and focus them on different celestial objects for us to view.
Picture
The most fascinating thing we saw were two galaxies 25 million light years away converging on each other in an interstellar game of chicken (see picture on left). When these two tractors collide (can’t resist a footloose reference), the billions of stars contained within each galaxy will lead to some real fireworks! Of course we won’t see the action for at least 25 millions years since it takes that long for the light to travel from there to Earth.

Neda & I were humbled by the sheer numbers involved in the observing. Our Milky Way galaxy alone contains billions of stars and beyond it are billions more galaxies, each containing billions of stars. Such vastness can make one feel small and insignificant until we remember that there are trillions of cells that make up each of our bodies. In this way, we are each like mini-galaxies colliding with each other everyday - little microcosms of the cosmos.


Picture
From the glittering beauty of the stars, we traveled the next day to Marfa – a minimalist paradise. This oxymoron of a town finds rustic Texas cattleman walking the street with Prada fashion designers. We ate lunch with a couple such designers and enjoyed their reverence for the place (sparked by Donald Judd and the Chinati foundation that he founded there). Judd’s work sits in and around the Chinati Foundation – blocks of concrete laid out in West Texas grasslands. The blocks are minimalists masterpieces that defy our obsession on form and instead beg us to focus on the contextual interplay of light and space. They leave one feeling unsatisfied simply walking past the pieces – they are meant to be experienced over the course of a day. We meditated inside one and enjoyed the light shifting as we sat. Meditation is a form of minimalist exercise where we try to move past form and focus on context (i.e. awareness). I haven’t thought much of minimalist art before, but perhaps Neda & I have more connection to it than we realized :).  

Picture
Minimalist shoes gazing at minimalist art...
Picture
Thursday finds us leaving Texas on the 10 hour trip to Phoenix, where we will stay with one of Erin & Mike - friends of Neda's from Springfield. Tomorrow we head to Sedona for yoga, red rocks, and new adventures. See you there!

If these pics weren’t enough for you see the rest of our West Texas adventure here.

 
 
Picture
Crossing Terlingua Creek
Days 2 & 3 of our journey found us in the vast expanse of Big Bend. We drove down to Santa Elena Canyon - a 1,500 foot deep canyon carved by the Rio Grande River. To get there, we had to cross an offshoot of the Rio Grande - and boy was it a muddy journey in crossing! To the left is a pic of Neda gettin' dirty in the crossing and below is a shot of why it was worth it!  

Picture
A 1.5 miles hike led to breathtaking views of the canyon - thanks for the Joby mom!
After Santa Elena we spent the rest of the day traveling through Big Bend exploring canyons made of volcanic tuff, old Ranch Houses from the 1920s, a box canyon formed by flash floods, and at night we headed to Dugout Wells (an Oasis in the desert where trees cluster together like children 'round a water hose in the summer).
This morning we got up at 6am and headed to the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Mountains (where our Lodge is located). The 1,100 foot ascent led to wonderful views of the Casa Grande Mountain and the "window" (a gap in the mountains that allows one to see deep into the desert - the sun sets right in the middle of the window each night).
Picture
The peak of the Lost Mines Trail overlooking Casa Grande on the left and the "window" in the middle of the picture
Picture
  From a spiritual perspective, we were struck at how the mountains and dikes in the park were created by lava flow over millions of years. You could see the different layers that had built upon each other over time to create the beautiful mountains we gazed upon. These layers reminded me of our own psyches - experiences stacked together over time to create something that seems so solid and real. These mountains are the sum total of their layers - and yet they are something more. The layers come together to create a beauty that no single layer has on its own. Our own personalities are like this - even the volcanic, violent layers we add through difficult times come together to create a beauty that would otherwise not be possible. That's it for now travel friends - see you in Marfa!  

Oh, and if you would like to see more pictures of this leg of the trip, click here
 
 
We have sold everything we have accumulated for the past several years. We packed a few boxes with items we may want to use and keep and shipped them to Jeff's mom's basement (Thank you, Phyllis! :)).

It was an interesting experience purging to this extent and watching our belongings leave us to find new homes (or the dumpster). We found it hard to let go of some items and had to really consider the reasons.

Alas, the place is basically empty and we are now in cleaning mode. As I finish my last day at work, Jeff is getting last minute items ready for our big cross country drive.

The first destination is Big Bend National Park - http://www.nps.gov/bibe/index.htm! We leave Sunday morning and hope to be arriving right before sunset and watch the sun go beyond the Mexican Mountains.