Lonely Planet

Backpackers be warned. The planet has just gotten a little lonelier today.

Remember the days of yesteryear? When “Lonely Planet” stood for that dog-earred guide that led dusty travelers to the farthest corners of the Earth? To places of discovery and wonder? To waterfalls and arid deserts? To exotic temples and camel rides?

The Paris Agreement, an accord signed by 195 parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, is meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2020. The whole world, which is clearly impacted by climate change, came together under the agreement to combat its effects. To do something about it. To move from denial to definite action. It was a monumental decision and recognition that we are in this together. The environment does not recognize titles or boundaries or politics. It only knows how to do what it is designed to do.

Nature has unbounded intelligence. It can adapt. It will survive.

We may not.

The only exceptions to the signatories? The Holy See (Vatican) as it is an observer state; Nicaragua, whose emissary claims they are doing climate change on their own; and Syria, a country embattled in a civil war.

148 of those parties have ratified or acceded to the Agreement, even China and India, the countries with three of the four largest greenhouse gas emissions of the signatories’ total (about 42% together).

Where is the United States on the scale of greenhouse gas emissions? The country spews out 17.8% of the world’s greenhouse gas. And yet it represents only 4.34% of the world’s population. Hmmm….

And yet Trump, whose delusions of grandeur as he peers from his perch at the top of his world seem to grow with each passing tweet, has decided to poop in the world’s sandbox by withdrawing the United States from the agreement. He wants to push the coal industry and “save American jobs”. What he is doing is not only short-sighted, it also won’t work. The clean energy industry has surpassed traditional sources in jobs and innovation. China is spreading its green technology throughout Africa, for instance, a profitable opportunity the United States is missing completely.

According to a recent Sierra Club report based on the Department of Energy 2017 jobs data, “[c]lean energy jobs, including those from solar, wind, energy efficiency, smart grid technology and battery storage, vastly outnumber all fossil fuel jobs nationwide from the coal, oil and gas sectors. That includes jobs in power generation, mining, and other forms of fossil fuel extraction.”

The US President claims he works for the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris. For starters, Paris was the location of the conference where the agreement was adopted on December 12, 2015, then entered into force November 4, 2016, just four days before the tragedy that is US politics unfurled with his election win. The best part is it was actually signed at the UN headquarters in New York City, just paces away from his place of residence.  If the man would take just a moment to cursorily review the document, and I mean just the title, he would see that it pertains to the whole world, which includes Pittsburgh, unless the city decides to secede from the planet, which could get interesting. Perhaps Trump would join them then. And we can finally put this whole thing to bed.

In other worlds, Trump is speaking to a handful of constituents at the expense of 7 billion other people.

It is yet another demonstration of the perils this fine nation intends to inflict upon the rest of the planet. And the deep, deep selfishness that fosters hatred in the hearts of those who despise his ignorance.

Yes, Trump, it’s lonely at the top. And as you alienate the country you claim to lead from everyone else, your fall will be even harder.

Truth downtrodden, not dead

If I were to look at the world from a teen’s perspective, life is pretty black and white. It’s either hot or it’s cold. It’s good or it’s bad. It is right or it is wrong. Despite the backdrop of this simplicity, life is pretty complicated as emotions swell beyond the youngster’s comprehension.

As we grow older and our emotions stabilize, truth takes on shade. Grey areas emerge. Shadows lurk behind the meaning of things. And we grow accustomed to truth’s dimming shine. Our indignation weakens as adult life distracts us. We are lulled into a quiet sleep, fact-checking less, digesting garbage without thought and passing on recycled beliefs we’ve stopped questioning.

During some moments in history, the light switches back on. Our eyelids peel back, our backs straighten. We start paying attention with an intensity long forgotten in those high school hallways of yesteryear.

Now is one of those moments. When truth is on the witness stand. When what is said is scrutinized more closely. When the litmus test of reality races to the forefront.

Bildschirmfoto 2017-03-25 um 11.47.02Time magazine put three words and a question mark on its front cover this week.

Is truth dead?

The very fact that the editors pose the question tells me it is not. If we truly lived in a post-fact world, we would have no mind to engage in the inquiry.

In Trump’s attempt at weakening what is real, at his outright inability to withstand truth’s might, at his blaming and slandering and pouting and thrashing comes truth’s ultimate power. He is inadvertently strengthening the very thing he cannot stand: groups who disagree with him.

You cannot fight against forces stronger than you. No tower so high, no wife so beautiful, no pocket so deep, no office so revered will ever make an honest man out of a liar. A cheater. A profane example of human impotence.

The truth may be downtrodden, but it lives on. We are ever vigilant now. The tempest is gathering its gale force winds. The greatest revenge is our own success.

The truth will prevail. And so will we.

 

How Great (Thou) Art

These are bewildering times. As I follow the growing dis-ease on the international political stage, I retreat to the theatrical one, from which I draw endless strength. In the shadows behind the curtains, I can smell the mystery and anticipation of that golden moment the performing arts can carry.

But it isn’t easy,” said Pooh. “Because poetry and hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

Indeed, the beauty of art is a magnificence to behold. After a week in the Swiss Alps near the Matterhorn, observing and interviewing over a dozen artists whose bodies are their art form, I have come to realize two things:

  1. Art is like air. We need it to breathe.
  2. Nature heals and holds us high.

Sometimes we forget in the rush of things how important the simple aspects of life are to nurture us and make us whole again. Then, with a gentle nudge from happenstance, we become transformed as we stumble upon a magical moment. Maybe we pay an unexpected visit to an art gallery or attend a performance that moves us so deeply as we witness the connection between artist on stage and the audience below.

In my case it was Viktor Kee, the world’s best juggler whose act has been featured in Cirque du Soleil numerousIMG_6290 times. He is a mild-mannered fellow who likes to laugh. He told me he is always nervous before every performance, which is a good thing. “The moment I am no longer nervous is the moment I must stop doing this.” Adrenaline gives you a laser-like focus. You can’t be distracted, thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner when you do circus arts. Keep your eye on the ball. At all times.

Elayne Kramer, a world-class contortionist and a sixth generation member of an Argentinian circus family, told me she has no regrets. “The road is my home. When I arrive to my house in Florida, I am IMG_6300on vacation. But I can’t stand it there for long. I was born to do what I do.” She has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Good Morning America. Her charm, grace and balance will knock your socks off.

The commitment these acrobats have for their art is remarkable. A couple from Colombia told me when they perform time stands still. They lose all sense of pain and feel like they ‘are floating in the air. By the looks of their performance, they are!

And so, when poetry does not come to us, we must go to the place where it can find us again. Where we can put the pieces back together of our shattered hearts and remember that these times too shall pass.

And the show? Well, yes. The show will go on.

 

 

Slow Culture, Fast World

The honeymoon is over. The bubble has popped. Reality slammed me in the face at 6 am this morning.

That tender space of suspending thinking, in which you float between the time you return from vacation and the return to the day-to-day, is filled with wonder. Your brain has emptied. Your thoughts are fluid. Your consciousness is elevated. You are on a cloud, feet barely scraping the ground. You wonder how long you can keep up the feeling. You hope it lasts far longer than it will. But you hope nonetheless.

2017-02-23 13.49.05“Maybe it will be different. This time.”

And then Monday morning comes. You wake up before the alarm with a startled thought. It’s nothing really. You made a less than optimal decision about something so banal that it’s not even worth thinking about. But you do. And then you get mad that your bliss has been disrupted by something so meaningless.

Just yesterday I chat with my neighbor, revealing I had just returned from the most life-changing trip to Nepal and India. His eyes lit up and he began his tirade about what’s wrong with Western civilization.

“Why do we keep running? Toward what?”

He summed it up beautifully.

“We are distracting ourselves from the thought of death.”

Perhaps he is right, I thought. But I wasn’t ready to take on those thoughts just yet. I guarded my bubble carefully, going on to my yoga class for a moment of “Om”.

In the evening I wasn’t feeling particularly fearful or distracted or worried or annoyed. I drank lots of water and went to bed early. And then morning came with the reality that I had some even harder decisions to make that might rattle even the most Zen-like person. I watched my age-old fear awaken from its slumber, stilled only for the time it took me to realize it is alive and well.

Stay in your center, stay in your center, I told myself as I brushed my teeth, feeling like Julia Robert’s character, Elizabeth Gilbert, in Eat, Pray, Love.

Momentarily, I have regained ground on myself. Filled with Slow Culture, I cannot deny that it feels strange to be back in a fast, fast world.

The feeling is slipping slightly. I have lost a noticeable grip on the ephemeral sensation of alignment. But I know where to get it when I really need it.

Deep within in the archives of my memory of what has been, what is and what shall be.

 

Our Nightmare Ride to Delhi on the Shanti Express

Life in India is like a mandala. So many pieces and parts, colorful and blending, fitting together in harmony in an ebb and flow of energy and stamina.

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Roads in India sometimes abruptly end. Without warning. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Nothing reflects that truth like a car ride on an Indian highway. The roads aren’t like the asphalt strips with which you may be familiar. They are ribbons of Earth and holes and dust — sometimes the roads cover miles made of tar. But always there is an abrupt ending, sometimes so sudden you have to screech to a halt to acknowledge them.

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

This man sells model airplanes near the airport outside Delhi. On the highway, where else? (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

The road in India is also a place of commerce. A chance to sell toys or food or to beg for money inside the windows of stopped cars.

The gaps in the road are the kind of holes that make give your coccyx a new meaning in life. As the vehicle regretlessly slams your body to the ground without shock absorbers or any type of protection between you and the machine that carries you forth, your tailbone involuntarily stamps a circle in the sand, an ethereal moment of “Yes, I was here.”

We hired a car and driver to make it back to the country’s capital by lunch time.

We awoke to the sound of Sadus’ breath blowing through conch shells, their fingers laced over bells ringing in intervals. The music lured us out onto our balcony for one final look at Pushkar Lake before leaving for Delhi.

The driver greeted us at the hotel entrance in Pushkar. In the pitch black pre-dawn air, we only saw the glint of his eyes.

“Bonjour, ca va?”

We blinked, blinded by the darkness.

“Oui, ca va. Allons-y?”

Numbed by the early hours, we sat in the backseat, clutching our backpacks and wondering how long the ride would take.

The driver, who had introduced himself as Kamal and who had a French girlfriend (thus the greeting), tried to encourage our mood.

“You only need three things when travelling through India: Good brakes, good horn, good luck!”

It was only then that I observed his head periodically spitting brown juice out the window.

My well-travelled love explained:

“He’s chewing a stimulant to stay awake.”

It turns out he had been driving a young married couple since 10pm the night before. It was 5am and he had an eight-hour drive ahead of him.

He hadn’t slept a wink.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired -- and used often.

Horns in Indian traffic are desired — and used often. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

“Don’t worry, my dear,” my love assured me. “There’s so much to do while driving in India that he won’t fall asleep. Ever.”

Somehow I found his statement to be only vaguely reassuring. And I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much either. In fact, I spent most of the eight-hour ride doing this:

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Holding on for dear life. (2) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

For the first two hours we drove in the dark, getting to know one another. I figured if we knew each other’s life

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can.

These mushroom-like bulges are transported everywhere and anyway they can. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

stories, perhaps even loosely, it would create a bond that would hold us together – and out of harm’s way – for the duration of our ride to Delhi. We stopped for chai and what passed for coffee at a roadside stop. As dawn broke, we fell into a comfortable silence.

That is until, in the span of sixty seconds somewhere between breakfast and the first thought that my bladder might burst, we witnessed the following amazements:

 

  • a shepherd ushering a herd of cows across the entire six-lane highway crossing both directions;
  • a troop of camels hauling firewood and galumphing their load serenely to our left (on said highway);
  • a young child racing across three lanes to get to the other side;
  • tuk-tuks filled with twenty people that any Western family of four would consider tight for their standards; and
  • always, always, always the plea from trucks’ backsides to blow your horn.

Kamal got us to our hotel safely and in record time. He manoeuvred through potholes, toll booths, animal crossings and blinding sunlight. He is the only one working to support his entire extended family.

As I held on for dear life, I wondered if we were going to make it back in one piece. Occasionally, Kamal would spontaneously break out in song or chant something in Hindi. It sounded like a choral prayer and so I began to silently pray with him to the Shiva on his dashboard, then Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Whoever Else Was Listening. His job is dangerous and he is not able to say “no” to 2 am requests like ours for delivering tourists to their destinations.

“My family is counting on me.”

We thanked Kamal for his courage for getting us to the city in tact.

May the mandala of life continue its endless cycle of flowing energy and endurance.

It was an experience of a lifetime I won’t ever forget.

Alright then...

Alright then… (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

I lost count after 15 as to the number of people in this tuk-tuk. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

No doors? No problem! The easier to hang out the opening to ride along. (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

Oh the driver did. Constantly! (c) 2017 Klaus Polkowski

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time without Meaning

Western understanding of time is that it is a commodity to be exchanged for money. Our entire system, including institutions, commerce, systems for governance and lifestyle, is based on our time-is-money definition. It creates an environment in which clock combat is king. We immerse ourselves in a pressure cooker and wonder why our heads and hearts hurt so badly.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

A sign found in Jaipur, India.

Our preoccupation with time is further intensified through our alienation from the natural world. Who has time to dally about, reflect or pause? It is too costly, we argue. We can’t afford it.

But Nature and the time we spend with it is as essential as good nutrition. We are natural beings. We need Nature to remember who we are and why we are here. Our communion with the natural world has been forgotten. And yet it is as important as the air we breathe.

For the past few weeks I have been traveling about Nepal and now India, feeling at one with all things and wonder how I could feel so comfortable in a place so foreign to my usual surroundings.

And then, as I strolled through the desert amongst camels and nomads, it suddenly hit me. The people here mill about towns just as casually as the cows and dogs and monkeys that inhabit the places we have seen. The co-mingle, co-exist and co-inhabit with Nature. The food they eat is real food. It is Slow Food that actually doesn’t need capitalization. They don’t eat processed foods geared toward saving time in its preparation because time and nature are the same.

When we return next week, I hope to remember the lessons I have learned here and, to my very best ability, uphold the same understanding I have gained during my travels to these most exquisite places.

I am humbled by the experience. Blessings to you all.

Why I deleted Facebook

Sometimes self-control is not enough. Sometimes you have to carefully position your own roadblocks to force saner living.

With the press of an “x”, I dismissed the vitriol that had become my daily breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only have I found myself pining for past Republic administrations that now don’t “seem that bad”, I have also started missing those adorable cat videos and those pumped-up versions of themselves that people like to have us believe is true about their fabulous Facebooked lives.

no facebookI miss the tinge of envy I’d feel at pictures of palm trees in places I definitely was not.

I miss the giggles elicited from videos of furry animals, preferably baby ones, tumbling on top of each other.

I miss hoping someone will “like” my post because they like me.

I miss the Facebook I used to know that I’d sometimes playfully call “Fakebook” because we often use it to look better than we are.

But we have entered a new era now. Many of us have become activists, something I truly applaud. And what better way to broadcast sensible causes than the world’s largest online platform?

Unfortunately, there is a flip side to it. Facebook, in my view, has turned into a shouting match, a place of posturing and yes, at times, a platform to share invaluable information. But the more I’ve tried to digest the unfathomable messages, especially from politicians vying for fame and glory, the less I began to trust it as a source for anything real or true or good about this world.

What motivated me to finally hit the delete button on my iPhone app came after reading a post by a Kentucky Senator who mocked the women’s march, calling women “cute” in the most patronizing way possible.

In his eagerness to earn likes and commentary (at any cost, I might add), he has joined the legions of people who will do and say anything to attract attention. It is so sad.

A like is even more short-lived than a soap bubble on a hot July afternoon. It is meaningless if there are only words without positive action behind them.

It broke my heart to see how broken our system truly is.

Fighting against virtual reality is like trying to capture wind in your hands.

What could I possible do then, in the face of such powerlessness, to make a difference?

Then it hit me. I have invested so much time in conversations with people I don’t even know. What if I were to start conversations with the ones I do know? What if I were to reach out to someone in need, right here, right now, in front of my very eyes? What if I were to dedicate all the time I have spent clucking at the injustice online to a cause in my very own town? Not only would I feel better, but that person would too.

So that decides it. Less Facebook. More face time. In real life.

Yes, a new era has dawned and I am ready to take on the challenge. Will you join me?

 

Gettin’ Jiggy with Hygge

According to the World Happiness Report 2016, Denmark is the happiest country on the planet. If you’re thinking it’s because they have great health care, a substantial gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, an overall high life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity and little corruption  — the criteria for happiness in this report — then you are right. They do. But they also have something else that I discovered the other day that is so aligned with the notion of Slow, I simply had to tell you about it.

You see, the Danes, aside from their fabulous butter cookies, have something that a lot of us do not. They have the notion of hygge, which sounds a lot like “hoo-guh”, which, in turn, sounds a lot like a cave man with a slight Irish lilt demanding a hug.

But that isn’t it at all, my friends. Hygge is the idea of going slow in the winter time. It is roughly translated to mean “coziness” (in German: Gemütlichkeit). After all, it gets light late and dark early for five months out of the year in Denmark. Yet they aren’t SAD from all that light deprivation (afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder). They are HAPPY. Thanks to the mental state of hygee.

Hygge says to embrace That Which Is; accept the darkness and leverage it to create a cozy atmosphere. Light candles, slow down, go within, reflect. Celebrate the now. Give yourself what you need – a visit to the sauna, healthy vitamin-rich food, warm meals, a fire in the fireplace, a hot water bottle at night, heat.

My daughter has set up her room such that her bed is in a darker corner of the room so the streetlights from outside aren’t nearly as visible. It is comfortable, warm and relaxing. In my view, it is the perfect hygge design.

Morning rituals in the winter time are different than in the summer time. Slippers and a bathrobe, a hot cup of coffee and warm food create a sense of nurturing to offset the piercing cold.

Warmth is not only a physical state. It’s a mental one too. The Danes figure snow and ice will slow you down so what’s the rush? Get jiggy with hygge. It’s cave time with the tempo to match.

 

Tug of War

It is so very tempting to split the world into us versus them. And if you examine yourself closely, you will recognize that there is a part of you that doesn’t look away when passing the scene of an accident. You might not physically look, but that 2% of yourself that wants to take a peek cranes its neck to look at the horror. So even in your “us”, you are a part of “them”.

Our fascination with the ugliness of life seems to be at an all-time high. We digest the diatribes, shake our weary heads at the injustice of the world, toss our hands heavenwards at the nasty behavior of a Delta Airlines passenger whose rants cost him a lifelong ban to ever fly with Delta again and feel sorry. So sorry. For ourselves and the state of our world.

Admittedly, I too have joined the lurking legions who read blog entries, newspaper articles and opinion pieces of those so deeply infuriated by the results of the US election. I am a part of the none too little fraction that is truly up in arms about the blatant lying and unfounded claims of Orange Boy. As I watch our society split into fractions, I realize that our anger is fueled by something even deeper than fear. It is fueled by hateful revenge on both sides.

You can’t build bridges by pointing fingers toward the other side of the river. You’ve got to make a plan, find common ground, view things from different angles and understand that together we are stronger. Apart we are broken. Apart we build walls. Apart we tear down cities, break hearts and destroy human dignity.

I am in no way condoning injustice or favoring acceptance of that which is utterly unacceptable. I am fighting for a collective spirit that is quickly evading my grasp.

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

(c) 2010 used with permission, Georg Sander, Flickr

A few years ago a boy in my son’s class was bullying my son. And so I went straight to the bully and said:

“You are far greater than this. What is going on? I mean really going on?”

The boy burst out in tears, saying his parents were separating and he was miserable. I gave him a big hug and told him his pain wouldn’t get any better by passing it on. Instead, it sounded like he needed a friend. And my son? He became that kid’s friend, easing his pain and letting him know he is not alone.

It may be hard to believe, but I truly do think that even that hillbilly on the Delta airlines flight loves his family. And if he does cry, he sheds salty tears like every other human being. His behavior was disruptive, grotesque and positively unacceptable. His outbreak frightened people. He has no right to do that. He should be prosecuted.

But he remains, as we all do, a human being. And we know human beings are capable of both good and bad. In fact, every human being is capable of both. Does a mean act justify an even meaner retaliation? If we lower ourselves to that level, we risk getting caught in a bottomless pit. When Orange Boy makes baseless claims, we retaliate not with meanness, but with cold hard facts.

As we tisk-tisk our way through Facebook, we may be frightened because we see our shadow side, that 2% we try so desperately to hide from the world. If you are human, you are able to build bridges or tear them down.

During these turbulent times, I am reminded of a beautiful Native American story. A grandfather tells his grandson that inside each one of us reside two wolves. One fights for goodness, justice and beauty. The other fights for evil, anger and wrong-doing. They are in a tug of war with one another at all times. When the grandson asked which one wins, the grandfather simply said:

“The one you feed.”

It takes the same amount of time to commit an act of kindness as it does to commit an act of meanness. How will you spend that time today?

 

Angry? Go Off(line)

The dream ended with a thought: one day even the Internet will be obsolete. One day everything will be.

The thought comforted me as I snapped on my phone in the middle of the night, unable to sleep as the turmoil of the past few weeks clouded my mind. It was most un-Slow of me to look to my phone for comfort instead of meditating or even doing one of those adult coloring books. But then, I thought, so what? In my recent efforts to be mindful, I have become too full of mind and less of the heart.

And so we return to the Source of All Things. That lovely energy that flows through us more strongly than any petulant, careless tweet from Orange Boy.

Love.

As I lay with my mind’s eye wide open, I tapped into that love flow. After a few deep breaths,  I caught the wave and harmonized with its intention.

We are here to make a positive difference. We are here to learn from one another. And to teach one another how we want to be treated.

Being a parent has helped me understand the value of being a role model in the world. How we behave truly matters. The Internet is not exactly the best place to be when trying to model good behavior on a bad day. It’s too tempting to engage in low-level anger. Flame wars and misinformation rage, especially in times of great distress. The term “information overload” has taken on a new meaning as we struggle to sort through the data and our own feelings about it.

Life offers us so many opportunities to show up greatly. We get to choose at any given moment how we wish to be. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does not. But with every choice we make, we add a lesson to the overall curriculum of our lives.

And so when a friend, or someone you thought was a friend, turns his or her back on you, that person was meant to do so. Consider it sharpening the tools in your toolbox. You understand life is the greatest teacher. Perhaps that person was developing in a different way than you are. That’s okay. Let it go.

And when a client turns foul-mouthed, learn from it. His behavior speaks volumes. Walk away.

And when your family causes you great despair, know that it is a part of the great experiment called life. We cannot control other people’s actions or feelings, only our own.

Magic is everywhere if you have the eyes to see it. Believe it is so and it will be.