Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part III

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As we climbed toward Dochula on a winding, bumpy, unfinished road that connects Thimpu and Punakha, our driver Dorji jockeyed for position around a continual stream of anthropomorphic dump trucks.  After about 30 minutes we began to see snow and by the time we reached the 3150 m peak we were in a white out.  We couldn’t see a thing, but we were happy to stop and have a little lunch at the rustic café at the top.  A group of American students on an Interim trip from Singapore American School engaged in rollicking snowball fight. We ate a simple lunch, discussed rewiring consciousness in Christianity (as you do) and headed down the other side of the mountain to the breadbasket of Bhutan.  Arriving in Punakha we went for tea and again engaged in a philosophical discussion, this time of sin and karma.  Wow, Gembo’s intellectual stamina is formidable.  I thought my head would explode during some of our teachings, as I just couldn’t take it all in.

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Gembo consciously chose places for us to stay that were not tourist hotels. Perched a solid 30 minutes above the main road into town, the local family farmhouse on three acres he carefully selected for us was a complete delight.  It was not at all fancy, but gave us the experience of living in a Bhutanese family home.  The family went to considerable lengths to make us comfortable and though we were sometimes chilly, the beds she bought for our visit were warm and cozy and we had everything we needed.  We were invited into her efficient kitchen when we arrived and we sat cross-legged on mats around the wood stove as we sipped hot sweet milk tea.  Using ingredients from her garden and her cow, our hostess created wonderful meals she served in the main room of the farmhouse.

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As half of our group is Christian clergy, Sunday morning we had our own little Eucharist in the farmhouse before we headed out for our meetings.  This was a first for all of us, as Gembo and Lam joined us for the service.  With this simple ritual our group had reached a new level of intimacy and trust.  It was another beautiful moment to add to the list.  Our lovely breakfast was a meat porridge and brown rice with cilantro, onion, garlic, ginger and chilies.  My new favorite.

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Tucked behind the stunning 17th century Punakha Dzong is a small government ministry building where we spent many hours over the course of the next two days.  The main meeting room, elaborately painted in yellow and orange clouds topped by ornate dragonheads, is furnished with stately couches and low tables.  His Eminence, Letshog Lopen Rinpoche, is one cool monk.  He radiated confidence as he breezed into the room with authority wearing darkened shades and sporting a small mustache and long, thin Confucian beard.  A scholar, philosopher and administrator, he was curious about our group and why we had come to Bhutan, and put Gembo through the paces translating all that he had to say.

Sabina’s opening questions always set the tone for our meetings, demonstrating that we were here as practitioners and here to learn.  Her skill earned our group respect and deepened the level of the conversations and interest in exchanging views.  With closed eyes he would listen to our questions, then come alive with philosophical responses such as likening creation/realization to tasting an apple.  Explaining that the taste itself is creation/realization, but when we talk of tasting, the processes that leads to tasting are the foundational steps and equally important as is tasting itself.  Priming soil, planting the seed, water, sunlight, time… all of these elements prepare for that moment of tasting.  To achieve Mahamudra, therefore, all steps are practices, attained within one’s mind along the path.  Got it?  After two intense hours of discussion, we shared a quiet catered lunch and then he abruptly bid farewell and left even before I worked up the courage to request a photograph.

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On the following day we met His Eminence Tshglop Rinpoche responsible for social service activities for the Sangha.  Our conversation was entirely different, but equally enlightening.  Establishing that we were comfortable and enjoying our stay in his country that might lack services but has happiness and tranquility, our conversation centered on effort, continual practice and service as key elements in the pursuit of mahamudra.  I was interested to hear from him that among older monks, they rarely if ever see mental problems.  He seemed to suggest a link between generation of wisdom and staving off dementia.

After several hours in that room, and on the one day when bright sunshine beckoned us from outside the windows, we were restless, but we had another remarkable moment just ahead.  Our driving companion and quiet, good natured friend, “Lam” who had accompanied us for two days practicing English and bantering about the food now changed hats and joined the list of respected experts with whom we shared dialog. Gembo translated as Lam Jampel Sangay, District Abbot of Pemagatshel District Monastic Body shared with us his deep knowledge and reassured us that the key element of spiritual practice is to have faith in the path we choose.  As long as we have total faith, we are on the right path.  This wisdom, among many other pithy teachings Lam shared, made staying inside a little longer worth every second. 

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With the mornings spent in meetings, our group was anxious to move our bodies in the afternoons and of course Gembo had a plan.  On the first afternoon, we hiked to Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten, a newer temple built by the queen mother with a massive mandala in the center “Victorious diety over the three worlds” and a stunning 360 degree view of Punakha valley from the top.   We discussed fear and imagery and whether they are learned or ingrained.  Mom wondered if Yeung might take issue with Gembo’s assertion that fearis conditioned; that the images are not inherently scary.  We heard about the divine madman and his antics on the way up, and about temple architecture as we descended in a rainstorm. 

On our second afternoon in Punakha we visited both Punakha Dzong and Khuruthang Lhakhang, the latter of which had survived a terrible flood.   When we finally returned to the farmhouse in the evenings, we were treated to a lovely stone bath one night, dancing with the host’s adorable eight-year-old daughter, and deep conversations over lovely hearty meals.

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On our way out of Punakha we stopped at a nunnery where we met a lovely young nun named Pema who gave us bracelets and told us she would pray for us.  She spoke perfect English, and was articulate, earnest and soft-spoken.  Though we all could have stayed in Punakha for much longer, it was time to begin our journey home.

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Tashi Delek – A Journey to Bhutan, Part I

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“If it doesn’t work out, we can visit another temple.”  – Gembo

Why is it that the best stories are the hardest to write?  When nothing big happens, the words flow easily.  When I spend twelve days in a continual state of “I-can’t-believe-how-lucky-I-am-to-be-here,” I don’t know where to begin to write about it.  Such was the case with my trip to Bhutan last week.  Far beyond a travel adventure, this trip had meaning and importance more than I can even begin to understand or convey in a blog post.  The only thing I can think to do is to write it in a series; like an artichoke with a few tasty morsels on the outside to be greedily consumed before picking my way through the fibrous, unpalatable layer to eventually reveal the sweet essence hidden deep within.

Visionaries come in many forms.  Ours were a Bhutanese Buddhist monk in flowing red robes and a deferential but celebrated economist and Anglican priest who, together, wondered what might happen if they invited a small group of Christian contemplatives to spend ten days in dialog and shared practice in the Buddhist Himalayan country where Gross National Happiness and the values of the monastic body infuse a rapidly modernizing country with an ingrained collective conscientiousness.  Here is our story…

Touching down at Paro airport after a night spent in Bangkok, Pip, a Christian contemplative from New Zealand who had spent time as a Buddhist nun in Thailand, mom and I navigated our way through customs and were greeted on the other side by our hosts; Lopen Gembo Dorji, Secretary General of the Monastic Body of Bhutan, and Sabina, an American woman living in the UK who had been our primary contact in the logistical planning of the trip.  Erik, an intense young American Christian studying at Naropa Univeristy in Boulder, and Oswin, a Christian monk from Mirfiled, UK with a specific interest in Japanese art rounded out our group.  We were a somewhat unlikely “delegation,” spanning a thirty year age range and with varying degrees of wisdom and practice, but with an unrivaled earnestness and sense of gratitude for whatever stars had aligned to bring us together for this experience.

Our host Gembo had attended secular school though university and then became a monk, an unusual trajectory, as most choose one path or the other much earlier in life.  Once he became a monk he did a three-year retreat and lived alone in deep practice in the mountains for years before being beckoned back to service by the central monastic body.  Gembo is fluent in English, politics, economics, history, religion, culture, philosophy, and has a particular gift for story telling and teaching.  While he expertly serves with grace and skill, his heart is in his practice.  Gembo is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.

The awe-factor continued with Gembo’s co-host.  The woman I knew by email as our coordinator, Sabina Alkire, turned out to be a hero in my book, and the same age as me.   Founding director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, a PhD economist and ordained Anglican priest, Sabina is the protégé of Nobel Prize winning Indian poverty expert Amartya Sen, and is also the economist behind the measurement of GNH in Bhutan among other things.   With this resume, one might expect a formidable presence, and yet Sabina treads lightly in all that she does, gracefully and humbly leading our group with an artistic skill that was a delight to experience and an inspiration.

Gembo and Sabina created an 11-day itinerary for our group that would cover three towns on the West side of the country, Paro, Thimpu and Punakha.  Our schedule listed meetings with senior members of the monastic body including three of the five Eminences, Dasho Karma Ura, the architect of GNH and Director of the Center of Bhutan Studies, and two vice principals of monastic schools.  Everywhere we went we were welcomed into the private chambers of the temples and monastic schools, served tea, biscuits and roasted rice by monks, and treated like honored guests.

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Modernization in Bhutan has come fast.  Mobile phones were introduced only a decade ago and are now ubiquitous.  Even the monks carry and answer mobile phones all the time.  It was a regular occurrence to hear cell phones chime in the temples, and there seemed to be no particular concern about it.   While Wi-Fi for tourists is still mostly accessible at Internet cafes and international hotels (I went three days without checking email), the insidious attraction of constant connectivity and electronic entertainment has not spared this small kingdom.  English usage is spreading too.  Secular schools are now taught in English while the monastic schools continue to be taught in the traditional Dzongkha.  Television and radio are widespread, with mostly Indian content on the TV.  This is a rapidly modernizing country, but with a desire to do so consciously.

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Our first night was spent in a guesthouse outside of Paro with a view of the majestic Taktshang Monastery, Bhutan’s most famous attraction more commonly known as the Tiger’s Nest built on the edge of a cliff.   We would later return to Taktshang on our final day in Bhutan to make the ascent once our bodies had acclimatized to the altitude.

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Our accommodations were simple, but perfectly located.  As we prepared for our first meal together, I eyed my almonds and granola bars, reasoning I could supplement after the meal.  I had done Internet research on food in Bhutan and found a series of drab photos of grey food, mostly chilies in cheese sauce and red rice. To my delight, I found these to be woefully outdated.  The food in Bhutan is delicious!  A few years ago people discovered a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables and began growing them in the off-season in and around the beautiful rice terraces.  With clean Himalayan water and good rich soil these plants grow plentifully.  Every meal we ate in Bhutan included vegetables as well as some local favorite dishes like eze – chilies, onions, tomatoes & cheese — and the delicious emadatse – hot chilies and cheese.  There was nothing gray to be found ever.  I returned to HK missing the food in Bhutan.

The first temple we visited, Kechu Lhakhang, was built in 651 AD.  Visiting a temple has a very specific routine we learned.  Remove shoes and step over the entrance into the temple.   Facing the statues, bow three times, hands in prayer over head, in front of face, in front of chest, and then lower to the floor and touch one’s head to ground, then return to standing and repeating two more times. Next, rest an offering gently to one’s forehead, say a prayer and place the bill on the altar.  If a monk caretaker is present, a small drop of saffron-infused water is poured from a beautiful peacock feather adorned pitcher into the palm of one’s hand.   Drink it, or place it on the back of your head.  We repeated this ritual at each temple we visited.

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On our way to Thimpu the next day, we visited Dungtse Lhakhang, a chorten-shaped temple built by the famed iron bridge builder Thangtong Gyelpo in the 15th century.  Inside the mandala inspired temple we scaled smooth ladders in the darkness up to the very top level. With flashlights and some small electric light bulbs we marveled at exquisite detailed paintings depicting dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmonakaya.  Gembo was a walking encyclopedia of Bhutan history, Drukpa Kargyu and Vajrayama, and could identify and tell us the meaning of every image we saw.  Avalokiteshvara, Guru Rinpoche, Mahakala, the divine madman, chakra sambala, bodhicita, tantra… these words swam in my mind as I tried to capture what I could.  I was wishing I had studied more before I went.  On our way out, circling the temple clockwise and turning the prayer wheels as we went, I was amused to see the young caretaker family share a coke and a smile.

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Bhutan is glorious countryside.  As part of their effort at conscientious modernization they have protected 70% of the land, most of which is national parkland.  Bhutan’s economy is supported by hydroelectric power it sells to India, special cordyceps (a medicinal “caterpillar fungi” popular in Chinese medicine) sold mostly to China, agriculture, and high-end tourism.  Bhutan’s relations are closely tied to India and not at all to China.  Even the national currency, the Ngultrum, is tied to the Indian rupee.  On the two-hour drive from Paro to the capital city of Thimpu, we snaked along, high above a river on a bumpy two-lane road reminiscent of the last 15 miles into Telluride that regularly gets cut off by mudslides, marveling that this was one of the “highways” in the country.

The story will continue in the next post.  Stay tuned..

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Girls’ Night In

As I gather my thoughts to write about Bhutan (a daunting task that really should be a book, not a blog post), I decided to share another unique story first: 

Last November I attended the most unexpectedly terrific dinner party ever.  Knowing that I would be in London for one night on a trip that took me to Rwanda and Oxford, I sent a message to Gwyneth Paltrow to see if she might happen to be in London at the same time.  Gwyneth and I met years before when I lived in London and, even after I moved to Hong Kong, we kept in touch and I sometimes visited her when I was in town.  Despite having relocated to Los Angeles, Gwyneth happened to be working on a movie in London and would be there during my visit.  She invited me over for dinner.

I had been to her house a few times for lunch, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with our kids and once with her whole family, including her brother and his wife.  Having made the mistake of asking her sister-in-law what kind of photos she takes when I later learned that she’s one of the most famous photographers in the world and was opening a solo show at the Tate Modern that same week, I wanted to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself again.  I sent Gwyneth a message asking if anyone else was coming and she replied that yes, a few great ladies would be joining.   “Who?” I asked.   “My best friend Stella McCartney and Adele.  The singer.”

Oh my.  Seriously?!

Now what do you wear to a dinner party of four that includes the world’s most beautiful Oscar winner lifestyle guru, an OBE top fashion designer daughter of one of the Beatles and a Grammy award winner with the most stunning voice ever?  I opted for black skinny jeans, a sequined racer back top and a gray cashmere coat sweater with little heel boots.  I know next to nothing about fashion anyway, but I think it was OK for the evening.

Gwyneth’s home is lovely and she took great care of us.  She served beautiful food and we indulged in great conversation that flowed seamlessly from the mundane to the ridiculous and back again.  Sometimes we were talking about work/life balance and raising children and then they were comparing notes on changing paparazzi laws and how terrific Beyoncé is.  I could contribute to some conversations, and not at all to others, but the fundamental feeling I had was that we were four moms with very different lives, but who all love and want what’s best for our children.

At one point during dinner after I finished telling them about my trip to Rwanda and how I had worked in Somalia years before Stella says, “Christ, we all feel like wankers compared to you.”  I laughed hard and told Stella that I wanted to have that engraved on my tombstone.

Stella and I bonded over Ed Ruscha, my favorite California artist who had done an Iconoclast episode with Stella I had recently seen.  I gave her my card and hoped I might hear from her, but didn’t get her contact details.  Hugs goodbye with all and I was in a taxi home, pinching myself from a truly fun and wonderful night.

A few weeks later sitting at my desk in HK a message arrived from “Merry Sam” with nothing in the subject line.  I nearly deleted it thinking it spam, but then decided to read it.  It said,

“Hello.  I am writing on behalf of Stella who has asked if you could let me have your underwear bra / pant sizes, shoe size and also your children’s ages and names please.  Also the best address to send you something please.  Many thanks.”

I pondered this strange message and then replied,

“Hi.  I’ve never received an email like that before.  Are you serious?  If so, I’m psyched.  If not, well, you have a lot of random info at your disposal.  Here goes…”, and I listed the information requested.

A few days after Christmas in Colorado I returned from skiing to find a box waiting for me with a return address “Stella McCartney.”  Opening the box there were four beautifully wrapped silver packages with red ribbon, one each for my children and one for me.  All were addressed by name and signed “Stella.”  Each kid had received a beautiful outfit, and a nightgown for me that fits as if it was custom made.  I was so touched that she thought of me and even with her extraordinarily busy schedule sent beautiful gifts for no apparent reason.  I was (and remain) rather speechless with gratitude.

I share this story because it’s too good not to.  The cult of celebrity is so intense, so revered, so reviled and such a mystery.  My biggest take away from the night was that these are women with extraordinary talents, but even bigger hearts.  Moms who want the best for their kids, like we all do, who are trying to make life work for their families and to share their talents with the world.  I am as inspired by the depth of their character and thoughtfulness as I am by their resumes, and I was so honored and thrilled to have spent an evening in their company.

Now on to karma knitting in Bhutan…

Bhutan Bound

Few things cause me greater discomfort than group meditation and cold, and yet in a few days I will willingly, gratefully spend 10 days fully immersed in both.  My mother was invited as a guest of the central monastic body of Bhutan to travel to the small Himalayan country, and she kindly secured an invitation for me to accompany her.  What I lack in heartiness and spiritual fortitude I hope I can make up for as the group’s chief photographer and scribe, the pragmatic optimist in a gathering of mystical heavyweights.

On the purely mundane level, I have never liked cold and since I was old enough to make my own decisions, have done my best to avoid it.  My college search revolved around temperature.  I picked Virginia because it was warmer than my home state of Pennsylvania and applied to schools exclusively in that state.  After college I moved to sub-Saharan Africa and then Los Angeles and except for two years in frigid Boston for grad school and a year in damp London, have lived in places where it doesn’t snow ever since.  My fingers go numb if it drops below 70 degrees.

My two coldest memories involve my mother, and I fear Bhutan may be the third.  I couldn’t have been more than seven when mom took me to the Poconos for a day of skiing where my loose knit mittens immediately absorbed the wet snow from my numerous falls, threatening frostbite to my little digits.  I can still recall the deep ache and tingling burn as they slowly thawed by the radiator in the nursery as she skied the rest of the day.  It took me a decade to attempt the sport again.

Years later, mom and I traveled in the dead of winter to Matinicus Island off the coast of Maine to interview year round residents for an article she was writing for the Island Institute’s periodical.  Exiting the prop plane onto the dirt airstrip on a gray, sunless January day, my lungs ached as I shallowly breathed in the biting cold air.   Our overnight hosts had a small home that was long hospitality, but short insulation.  I felt a little panicked at the idea of possibly freezing to death on that island and instinctively consumed the entire plate of hummus someone had made for the voyage, probably intuitively trying to store up some fat.

As I check the weather, Bhutan’s temperatures are scheduled to be just above freezing next week.  While East Coasters in the US are currently experiencing similar temperatures, the difference is that in New York while outside is cold, inside is heated and lovely.  From what I read, this is not the case in most places outside the fancy Aman resorts in Bhutan.  Our itinerary involves outdoor trekking to see magical, majestic sites and time spent in meditation and conversation with monks in monasteries throughout the western part of the country.  I’m taking everything warm I own and was pleased to read in the NY Times today that shivering is the body’s way of converting bad white fat into good brown fat which might help counteract my inevitable overconsumption of emadatse, the fiery hot chili cheese sauce that’s a daily staple of the Bhutanese diet.

As for group meditation, I am equally ill prepared, but well intentioned.  A birthright Quaker, 15 year practitioner of yoga, daughter of a Christian mystic, novice participant in Buddhist conferences at Hong Kong University and voracious consumer of neuroscience research, I sit at the intersection of faiths and science, a dismal practitioner of meditation, but with a deep sense of its individual and collective transformational power.  We will learn about the Mahamudra practices in Bhutan, and witness chanting and ritual as we talk with monks who have completed the 3-year/3-day/3-hour meditations at Cheri among other traditions.  If I return home with one thing from Bhutan, I hope it will be a greater patience with my own practice.  I expect to be uncomfortable most of the time I’m in Bhutan and I have to say at this point, I am totally comfortable with that.

(If you want to hear how it goes, click the link to follow this blog and stay tuned…).

Rwanda Revisited

Rwanda is an optimist’s paradise.  Naysayers and cynics move along.  This post is rife with inspiration, innovation and resilience in a country that 19 years ago was in unimaginable turmoil.

Continual controlled panic was the way I described my visit to Rwanda in October 1994, just months after a brutal genocide saw the massacre of a million people in 100 days.  On that visit I slept on the floor of the destroyed Ministry of Health office in Kibungo, eerily listening to dogs howl as they raided shallow graves for sustenance.  Tufts of hair and pools of blood still stained the floors of the new office space under consideration, and we’d speed up as we passed churches still full of the remains of those who’d fatally reasoned that the church would be a refuge rather than a mass grave during the worst of it.  I never saw a dead body that trip, but empty villages and the smell were enough to connect the dots in my imagination.  I never thought I would return.  Ever.

Yet last week that’s precisely what I did.  Invited as a strategic advisor to Vision for a Nation, a registered UK charity with a mission to make vision assessments and affordable eyeglasses available to all, I traveled to Rwanda and spent three remarkable days consistently impressed and inspired by what I saw and experienced.

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With 11 million people in Rwanda, Vision for a Nation’s goal to give every person (over 8) in the country an eye exam and provide relief for correctable refractive error is ambitious, but now that I have been there and seen their approach, I believe it is possible. VFAN was born from a simple adjustable lens technology and ‘train the trainer’ model that enables nurses to diagnose and correct refractive error in the 45 health centers throughout the country.  The adjustable glasses have dials on the sides which, when rotated, slide one lens in front of the other until the unique prescription is achieved.  Those with refractive error walk into a health center and walk out with glasses completely eliminating the need to return to the center to pick up custom glasses or the inefficiencies of pairing donated glasses from the developed world with end recipients.  It’s inexpensive, efficient and instant gratification.  Other benefits include diagnosis and treatment of cataracts, conjunctivitis and other easily treatable eye ailments.  Working in partnership with the Ministry of Health, VFAN will soon launch a public awareness campaign through a highly organized communication system in the country to educate and inform the public about vision care.  Eye care is generally not a life saving intervention, but it certainly improves quality of life.  This is one of many public health initiatives the MOH has embraced to improve the lives of those in Rwanda.

http://www.visionforanation.org

Speaking of the Ministry of Health, we were fortunate to have a private dinner with the remarkable Minister of Health, Agnes Binagwaho one night in Kigali.  The list of health initiatives she has implemented to improve the lives of Rwandans is impressive.  She is entrepreneurial, philosophical and pragmatic with a “can do” attitude I’ve never seen before in Africa.  She’s a total pro.  Dinner conversation included great one-liners like, “The best idea on the table is the one I take.”  “Money will come.  Good strategy is the important thing.”  “I want to die happy of what I have achieved.  I don’t want to be the richest in the cemetery.”   Her initiatives include the 80/40/20 plan to reduce non-communicable diseases (NCDs) by 80% for those under 40 by 2020.  To do this she began by implementing very concrete public health changes including mandating helmets for motorbikes, seatbelts, banning smoking in public places, cooking stove improvements and other initiatives that didn’t cost much, but had a huge impact.  She was the first to offer the HPV vaccine, countrywide, to schoolgirls of a certain age.  Her work in reducing HIV AIDS in the country is legendary.  Her entire staff has all gone to graduate school at the expense of the ministry and many are beginning PhDs now.  Government workers are mandated to do an exercise of their choice on Fridays during the workday and pay a fine if they do not.   She regularly tweets (as does the President) and responds to every tweet she receives.  She has 10,000 followers and has a regular Monday with the Minister show two times a month to address public health issues.  The Honorable Minister is a global health leader, not only for Rwanda.  I was honored to share a meal with her. 

Rwanda has two unique programs that contribute to its continued growth and improvement.  If I understand correctly, the Muganda is a compulsory gathering the last Saturday of every month at which time the entire country, divided into local communities, comes together to work from 7-10 on an improvement project and then from 10-12 to meet and share information.  They will paint a house that has fallen into disrepair, collect trash, build a road, or anything that the community deems as an improvement.  As a result, the country is tidy, fresh and continually improving.  Similarly, the Urunana radio programs reach an unprecedented percentage of the country with a soap opera-like ongoing storyline.  Intertwined in the programs are community health and agricultural messages.  This is one of the primary vehicles for spreading information throughout the country.  So radio that was once used for inciting violence is now used in a similar way for improving lives.

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Beyond health initiatives, last spring, in preparation for the TEDxHappyValley “Radical Resilience” event in Hong Kong, I was teamed up as a speech coach for a remarkable 27-year-old entrepreneur Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes, founder of the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali.  Elizabeth taught me more than I her during the process.  When I agreed to go to Kigali, I knew that a visit to see Akilah would be important.   Akilah Institute for Women is a three-year training program for women.  Women apply, take an entrance exam, provide references and interview for spaces at Akilah.  Those selected do a foundational year of math and English language as well as leadership training and then embark on a two-year program in one of three disciplines, entrepreneurship, information management or tourism.  Women receive career counseling, do internships, and continue with leadership training and practical skills development throughout their studies.  The first graduating class in 2012 had 100% job placement.    I had the honor of having lunch with four of their current students.  I was completely inspired and humbled by their poise, intelligence, determination and vision for their futures.  I can’t say enough good things about Akilah!  If you’re looking for a good place to invest in women’s education, this would be my top recommendation.

http://www.akilahinstitute.org

Above and beyond these formal gatherings, I was inspired to meet others who are consciously building businesses in Rwanda.  A friend of a friend has launched an organic coffee farm on his family’s heritage land after having fled Rwanda in 1959.  Upon returning, he was given back his family land and is now gently learning the coffee business, producing some of the world’s finest artisenal products.  I can’t wait to try some.

A dear friend of mine, Rachel Radcliffe, made the effort to fly all the way from Nairobi to visit me during my short stay in Rwanda.  I was so touched and happy to see her!  We worked together 20 years before at OFDA and have both led circuitous international lives since then.  Reconnecting with an old friend from those formative years was grounding and inspiring.  I feel so blessed.

Returning to Rwanda under much better circumstances was cathartic.  I know it isn’t perfect.  I’ve read the articles and heard the naysayers about Rwanda, but in this post I choose to see the country as it should be, celebrating those things that are working and truly inspired by earnest, innovative efforts on the parts of so many people to make things good in a place that hasn’t always been so.

Woods or Goods?

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Several years ago, when my son was quite small, my mother gave me a book to read.  It sat on the shelf for a few years, unopened, and eventually I gave it away.  A few years later she gave it to me again, and again it sat on the shelf.  When we moved overseas, the book was chucked in a box and sat in a dark storage place for five years until we bought a house and liberated our treasures.  Two years ago I found the book and carried it with me all summer and back to Hong Kong, still never cracking the spine.  I had a niggling sense that this book was important, but I wasn’t ready for it until yesterday.

With deadlines for projects I’ve assumed looming, I should have taken the rare moment of quiet on a Sunday afternoon to tackle my in-box.  Instead, my children busy with their friends and my husband grouchy, I retreated to the bedroom, pulled this book from the shelf and devoted the afternoon to discovering its teachings.  The book is Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul. Cultivating Wholeness and community in a Fragmented World.

That same evening, checking Facebook, I saw that a friend tagged me in a post linked to a new television ad for Toys R Us.  The ad depicted a busload of children on their way to a field trip in the woods who are then re-directed to the toy store instead, much to their great enthusiasm, and at the expense of a day in the forest.  Here’s the clip.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz4zqbDjYO4

I couldn’t believe the serendipity of having just read this book about how our egocentric society has gotten stuck in adolescence largely due to a lack of connection to nature.  I first re-posted the link to my own FB page with the comment, “pathetic,” but then added another post quoting directly from the book:

Stand still.   The trees ahead and the bushes beside you

Are not lost.  Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask it permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes.  Listen.  It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost.  Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are.  You must let it find you.

-David Wagoner, “Lost”

Toys R’US didn’t do anything wrong with their ad.  In fact, there’s probably not one among us who didn’t at one point during childhood fantasize about a free trip to the toy store.  They’re simply appealing to our collective voracious appetite for stuff and the delicious prospect of getting it for free.  But to have it so blatantly preferable to a day in the woods underscores that precise uncoupling of humans and nature that is as internally damaging on a personal level as it is externally to the planet.   I’m not a preachy environmentalist, but I think this book is skilled at linking a general human malaise and despondency with a very tangible explanation.

Some of my other favorite quotes so far from Nature and the Human Soul:

“If we look at the biographies of our society’s most celebrated geniuses, artists, and visionaries, we find that most of them had regular immersions in the wild, especially in childhood, and that all of them had great sensitivity to the stirrings of the soul’s deep imagination.” 

“Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence.  Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached.” 

And my favorite quote that answers the question of an earlier post (The Wisdom of Art School)…

“I believe that most people would agree that we will not create a healthier society by affording women the equal right to be as pathologically egocentric as a large proportion of men have been for millennia, to acquire the equal opportunity to excel in the patho-adolescent, class-dividing world of prestige, position, and wealth, academic and corporate ladder-climbing, and power broking.  Rather, mature men and women must join together to foster soul centric development for both genders and for all races and cultures… 

If it’s true that…our environmental crises are due to a widespread failure of personal development, especially among the people in power in the industrialized nations (mostly wealthy males), then a radical overhaul in our way of parenting and educating children is in order.”

So, whether this post makes you want to go to Toys R Us to stock up for the holidays, or take a walk in the woods will probably explain a lot if you choose to listen.  I, for one, am going hiking…um, after I pick up a few things from the store.

RAMP… on or off, we’re still moving forward.

 Ever since I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, I have been pondering the choices I made professionally and wondering if I should have “leaned in” along the way.   I love working and I have spent most of my life preparing for and participating in the workforce, but I also love being primarily responsible for raising my kids.  What I don’t love is feeling like I have to apologize for that choice.  In a perfect scenario, I could work around my family’s needs and contribute productively to society.  This idea led me to a thought exercise that with some energy and attention, might be a first step toward more seamless transitions for men and women in and out of the workforce along a life, not just a career, path…

RAMP… On or off, we’re still moving forward.

If work life is a journey to be traveled, rather than a destination to be reached, there are bound to be stops along the way.  Think of your career as one long, fun road trip.  You travel along, at first in a stroller, upgrading to a bike, your first car, a nicer model, a sensible minivan, the midlife crisis sports car and eventually a practical Subaru (avoid the wheelchair, if possible!) and then a nice porch rocker if you’re lucky.   But on any road trip, there are pit stops, exits and entrance ramps.  These are a natural part of any trip.   When you get off the freeway for a little break, you don’t abandon your car and never look back.  Instead, you park it for a while, rest, refuel and get back on your way. Why can’t your career be like this too?

What is RAMP?

  • RAMP is a network of individuals who view their career path as a journey rather than a destination, but who recognize the need to continue to grow, whether employed or not.
  • RAMP is a social movement designed to get society to stop valuing each other by our professions, but by our intrinsic character and essential selves.
  •  RAMP is a practical resource for skills building, networking, career curation, support and advocacy.
  • RAMP is a membership-based organization, app and website that links workers with employers, or needs with skills, for project based work for individuals who are taking a break from a career, but still want to be professionally engaged.

Goal

The goal of RAMP is to become a system for aiding the off ramping and on ramping of individuals from professional career paths to family care roles and back.  The goal is nothing less than raising both society’s labor productivity and also the overall level of emotional wellness in society.  Improving social productivity in this way is an increasingly urgent economic need given aging demographics in most countries and extensive welfare spending.

Need for RAMP

Many highly skilled and educated people, predominantly women, are dropping out of the workforce in order to assume the role of primary care provider parent in their own household.  With long work hours and complicated societal demands for engaged parenting, households that can financially afford a division of labor where one is the primary bread winner and the other the primary domestic manager are feeling forced to make this difficult choice.  Increasingly this has become an all or nothing scenario, which has created an economic inefficiency that should be addressed.   Educating a sector of the population that then fails to contribute directly to the economy is time consuming, expensive and inefficient.

Beyond the economic inefficiency of educating an ultimately “non-productive” sector, choosing to leave a professional life has psychological implications that negatively impact self-esteem, divorce rates, substance abuse and so on.  The Five O-Clock glass of wine that is joked about in just about every “mommy blog” or New Yorker cartoon is actually damaging and, I theorize, a sign of deep despondency and lack of satisfaction and happiness in life.

One of the biggest things a primary care parent misses is recognition, professional growth and feedback.  Volunteering for worthy causes can help alleviate that, but for individuals to truly engage in nonprofit volunteer work they need and deserve a more formalized system of recognition and feedback that contributes to the continuity of their resumes.  This will improve the quality of the commitment volunteers make to the causes as well.

  • A  Harvard Business Review survey found that 37% of highly qualified women were “off-ramping” (voluntarily leaving their job for extended time periods) and that “three quarters [of the women surveyed] were on nonlinear career trajectories to the detriment of their earning potential and career advancement.” (HBR Magazine, June 2010).
  • With due respect to his holiness the Dali Lama who believes that happiness is the ultimate goal, we RAMPers believe that happiness is the byproduct of finding and living one’s purpose.  Viktor Frankl’s “knowing the why enables you to bear almost any how.”
  • The root of the mommy wars is not judgment of the other, but vulnerability and guilt.
  • Answering the dreaded question, “What do you DO?”

RAMP can address these issues by helping primary care parents maintain their professional skill set, sense of self worth and purpose by keeping them responsible to continually contribute to the world beyond their own families.   Rather than just drop out altogether, RAMP helps individuals create a work plan that will enable them to continue to build new skills and keep old skills fresh, and to take on projects that utilize their professional talents but still maintain schedule flexibility which is the single biggest need for primary care provider parents.

Possible components of RAMP:

1.  On-line database for skills-based project work – For people with specific skills who don’t want to work full-time, but could take on projects.  The employer doesn’t have to pay benefits and can get specialzed skills and expertise that they don’t have to have in-house without making a long-term employment contract decision.   Similar in concept to legal services firm, Axiom, individuals could even eventually work for RAMP and be hired out for projects, getting insurance and other benefits from RAMP.

2.  Political Advocacy – Want to make a real difference?  Join the RAMP Advocacy Team in being an advocate for primary care parent protection by lobbying to make changes at the government level.  Could social security benefits be shared for couples who choose to have one parent stay home to take care of children?  Paternity leave benefits?  On-site child care?  Do research and let your voice be heard to help other families navigate these important decisions better in the U.S.

3.  Networking & Community Organization – There is power in numbers.  One of the biggest concerns of stay-at-home parents is the isolation and lack of professional network they had when they “really worked.”  RAMP offers both an on-line and in-person gathering for members.  Those in the same city can meet in a common location to work together, bouncing ideas off each other and perhaps sparking innovation.  Another example would be an increased efficiency and transparency to alleviate the mommy wars.  Instead of “stay-at-home-moms” feeling put upon by working mothers who continually ask for favors without reciprocating, organize a system where stay at home moms help working moms on an up-front basis and get some kind of compensation/recognition for it rather than favors with judgment.  Mothers could join the after-school brigade coordinating carpool rides to after-school activities, hosting homework groups at their houses and so forth.  Working mothers would know that their kids were in the hands of other mothers.  Working mothers would spend RAMP stamps by the hour, while stay-at-home parents who agree to volunteer earn the stamps.  RAMP Stamps can be spent to sponsor other members, or for guidance, personal training etc.

4.  Alternate Currency – An alternate structure for RAMP might include a website/app that would match skills with needs and earn members a form of currency called RAMP Stamps.  The website would keep track of bankable hours that could be spent for other services by RAMP members.  For example:  One RAMP member is an accountant.  She is “hired” by another member to create a family budget, which takes her five hours.  She banks five RAMP Stamps.  The accountant then decides she wants a balcony garden and finds a landscape architect through RAMP to plant a garden for her, which takes four hours.  She spends four of her RAMP stamps on the garden.  The landscape architect wants to relax with a regular yoga lesson, so she finds a yoga teacher on RAMP and spends her earned RAMP stamps, one hour at a time, on yoga and so on.   The transaction requires feedback from both parties, but no cash outlay.  This gives the “employee” a professional track record that helps keep the resume current and growing even though she isn’t formally employed at the time.   It also gives the “employer” services without spending money, an issue for non-income-earning spouses.  Modeled on Paperless Post’s stamps, RAMP Stamps can also be used to sponsor other RAMP members who can’t afford the membership fees or be spent on needed services.  This will build the RAMP network along socio economic lines and encourage the spirit of RAMP in helping people help others.

Clearly this is a half baked thought exercise, not a business plan, but I wonder if it resonates with you and if you have any additional thoughts?