Doug Bruns

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In Besi Shahar, Nepal

In Adventure, Travel, Writing on May 9, 2012 at 8:25 am

Day three in Nepal. Night spent in Besi Shahar, en route to Annapurna Circuit.

We stay in Best View Hotel. I turn on the light in my room. There is a spider on the wall three inches in diameter. I stare at it and curse. The bed sheet (there are no linens) has four or five dots of blood. I check for bedbugs. The pillow has no pillowcase and is slate gray.

The temple music from across the street has a fantastic beat and the voices are beautiful. But they chant deep into the night. I worry about rest and beginning the trek exhausted. I toss and turn and keep opening my eyes and studying the wall. There is a smear over my head where the spider was cornered and killed. I drape a tee shirt on the pillow but as I toss I lay my head on the filthy pillow. I eventually snag an hour of sleep here and an hour there. Finally at four-thirty I give up and begin my day.

The bathroom is ceramic tile floor, ceiling, and walls. There is a hole in the floor with indications as to where to place my feet. I’ve been this route before, in other such places, and wonder at having delivered myself here again. I step outside to catch my breath after the toilet and in the distance are mountains, big mountains and the morning light is pink on their slopes. At my feet is collected waste: broken bikes, toilet seats, cans, paper, wood, and endless pounds of plastic. There is no trash removal in this place and garbage is collected then burned. Remains of burnt metal and melted plastic from former fires lay here and there, dotting the landscape off into the foothills.

Besi Shahar is the end of the road, literally. From Kathmandu we spent six hours on the bus, then two hours in hired car to get here. The road comes to an end two miles out of town and the trail picks up. We will put on our packs in an hour and get going, to the end of the road, away from this post-apocalptic peek at civilization, with as much speed as we can muster. We have to get to the moutains soon.

______________

Posted from Cambre, Nepal, May 9, 2012

The Grand Canyon and other philosophies

In Life, Philosophy, Travel on November 13, 2021 at 2:47 pm
The Grand Canyon

I’ve been engaged the last couple years in correspondence with a young man in prison. He is a family friend who made a bad decision. He has a bent for big ideas so naturally the two of us have had a great deal to talk about. We had a recent exchange, a portion of which I wish to share with you here. So here we go.


Greetings from the Grand Canyon. Thanks for your most recent letter. You had some interesting things to share which I want to get to in a bit (the motivations for doing something, doing it for the parole broad, for credibility among the other inmates, and so on.) But first an update. I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of cool things in the world. I’ve been able to go to places like China to see the Wall, Nepal to see Everest, and so on. Yet I’ve never seen anything like the Grand Canyon. We went to the North Rim first. There had been a snowstorm a few days before and about 3 inches of snow remained on the ground. It was cold and the campground had a heavy canopy of Ponderosa Pines so it was dark, making it all the colder…After leaving the north rim, we traveled four hours around the canyon to the south rim. Goodness! From the south rim you see all the way down into the canyon and can trace the Colorado River twisting and turning. You have a clear view across the canyon, and the layers of sedimentary rock are fully exposed, giving you a glimpse into the evolution of the planet of almost 70 million years… I’ve been reading John McPhee’s, Annals of a Former World. McPhee is a staff writer for the New Yorker and one of our best and most interesting non-fiction writers. He wrote the book several years ago and it subsequently won a Pulitzer. It’s a big book at almost 700 pages and the topic is daunting, geology. I’ve avoided it for years. Who wants to read a 700 page book about geology? But time had run out. I couldn’t travel the West, seeing the highway cut-throughs, canyons, mesas and plateaus and not attempt to understand a little better what I was looking at. McPhee pulled me right in. Compelling prose, beautiful writing and a surprisingly fascinating topic. Consequently, the Grand Canyon seemed even more remarkable, given that I had a modest understanding of what I am looking at. And the canyon played a bit into our correspondence as well. Read on.

It clearly settled on me the insignificance of my existence standing on the rim, 70 million years of geological evolution in front of me. It is sort of like looking at the night sky from a mountain top. The human brain is not able to consider or grasp distance as astronomy employs it. We simply cannot think of a light year intelligently—the speed of light (186,000 m/sec) times 31,556,952, the number of seconds in a year. It’s the same with geology. We cannot grasp the concept of tens and hundreds of millions of years. These things, the night sky and geology, are good exercises in the practice of humility. When I say that my insignificance was starkly tangible, I do not want to suggest that I was distressed or upset. However, it was obvious: my sense of self and the ego that I’ve nurtured over the years really make no difference in the scheme of things. All the generations of human beings—and all the ancestors of our evolution—amount to a insignificant blip of time when tagged onto earth’s age, and even less when you consider the universe. We humans with our plans and schemes, our stark-raving consumption, our wars, loves, and ideals—it amounts to nothing in geologic time. So what is to be done? In the face of such a thing, how do we proceed, how do we scratch out a sense of meaning and worth?

In your last letter you said that your motivation these days is to do good work. That’s a wonderful start. But what does it mean to do good? What is good? What is bad, or as some people call it, evil? Things that were once considered good or bad, have often switched roles. Something that was good, say a hundred years ago, might now be considered bad. For instance, it was good to build Hoover dam and harness the flow of the Colorado. The dam provided hydro-electric power for LA and much of the southwest. But now, Lake Mead, behind the dam, is at it’s lowest level ever recorded. The Colorado River is disappearing, with less flow than ever. The dam might not be a slam-dunk towards the good in the long scheme of things. Remember that zen story I shared with you about the farmer whose horse ran off? The neighbors said, ”That’s too bad.” The farmer replied, “we’ll see.” The horse returned and brought more horses with him. “Good for you,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” he replied. His son attempted to tame one of the wild horses but broke his leg. “Too bad,” said the neighbors. “We’ll see,” said the farmer. The son is saved from conscription because of the leg. And so on. The farmer, in his wisdom, recognized that we never really know how something will turn out. The Greeks developed the notion of skepticism. Montaigne was a skeptic, famously quipping, “What do I know?”Honestly, it’s the only proper way of looking at the world once you come to appreciate the enormity of things beyond your control. Your motivation to do good is admirable, don’t get me wrong. If only more people were so motivated.

You made a comment about being judgmental and practicing a double-standard. That is the challenge of being a human being, isn’t it? I have no problem with being judgmental, at least in the fashion of being evaluative. We must make judgments all the time. What is the right thing to do? What is that person up to? Do I go or do I stay? In some sense, everything we do is based on judgement. Everything eventually boils down to choice. It’s when we start to pin the tags of good and bad on judgements that things get tricky. My old friend Nietzsche wrote a book, Beyond Good and Evil. The essence of it is, good and evil are concepts. They are social norms that come and go. There is no absolute good, nor absolute evil. No Platonic idea of good and evil, especially if you take that big social construct, religion, out of the picture. Being human is such a tricky thing. But then you know that first hand, don’t you?

You closed your last letter discussing how your actions might be perceived in one fashion or another depending on who is the observer. A fellow inmate might view your actions one way, the parole board another. You need both on your side, yet they might be opposing perspectives. That is a quandary, an essential ethical problem. You obviously recognize this and are attempting to orchestrate the best path to take. What is good, what is bad? That is the human condition, isn’t it? A mine field, indeed. Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of the first century, had something to say about this:

“As the proposition, ‘Either it is day or it is night,’ is extremely proper for a disjunctive argument, but quite improper in a conjunctive one, so, at a feast, to choose the largest share is very suitable to the bodily appetite, but utterly inconsistent with the social spirit of an entertainment. When you eat with another, then, remember not only the value of those things which are set before you to the body, but the value of that behavior which ought to be observed towards the person who gives the entertainment.”

Epictetus suggests that concepts like day or night are substantial and not subjective. But there are other things in life that are not so cut and dry. You might desire a large portion at a dinner party—you might think that would be “good” for your appetite—but in fact such a thing would not be good, as there are other things to consider. For example, he suggests that our behavior should be evaluated as to how it effects those around us, in this case, specifically the host at the dinner part. This, I think, falls under your heading of “doing good.” That is, making your best effort and using good judgement in order to best contribute to your immediate social situation. But even that can trip you up. Several years ago my cousin in California was dying of cancer. She sought me out after many years, decades even, of no communication between us. We were not on bad terms, we’d just gone our different ways. For a year I flew back and forth, Maryland to California, to help and attend to her. I was there on the day she died and I believe I brought her comfort. All that was to the good, right? But if we zoom out and take into consideration the particulates released at 30,000 feet and how air travel contributes to global climate instability, one might say that no, it wasn’t good. Thinking beyond the immediate social situation, my flying back and forth was quite problematic in that I was contributing to the demise of the climate in a radical way. So much depends on our perspective. Again, we must try to do the right thing but can never be assured of the consequences. As a rule of thumb, however, the longer the view the better the likely outcome.

I so enjoy getting your letters and really appreciate that you take the time in your schedule to write and send them. We have covered a lot of ground over the last year, ground I would probably not have traveled without your companionship. Thank you for that.


And so my letter to a young inmate came to a close.

This is a long post and if you’ve made it this far I applaud you for your endurance. Thanks for reading, stay safe, do good work, as best you can determine, and be kind most of all.

The View of Everest

In Adventure, Memoir, Nature, The Examined Life on January 31, 2016 at 9:30 am

I used to live in a house deep in the woods. Our bedroom had a vaulted ceiling and there were no blinds or curtains on the windows. We had no neighbors, there was no need. They were tall beautiful windows that spanned from almost floor to ceiling peak. Our bedroom was situated such that from my morning pillow I could, without twisting my head, look out the windows and see trees. I used to lie there and think that seeing my trees from my deathbed would be a perfect finish to a life well lived. I’ve since sold the house and moved on and my deathbed scene will have to be revised accordingly.

Last night, after taking Lucy on her last-of-day walk, I passed through our bedroom here in Maine and noticed the dappling of the night lights reflecting off the water and onto our bedroom ceiling. This too, like the trees, is something I can see from my morning pillow without effort. I notice it most every morning and it always makes me happy, like waking up on a boat in nice weather must make one.

I saw the movie The Revenant this week and in it there is a scene  where Leonardo DiCaprio‘s character is befriended by a native, an Indian who has lost his family to a renegade tribe. At one point the two of them sit under the night sky, leaning against a small tree, and stare into space. The scene goes on a long while, long enough for me to ask myself: When was the last time you pondered the night sky without distraction?

Last year, you may recall, I traveled to Nepal to trek to Everest Base Camp. Our adventure came to a halt, high in the mountains, ten miles from Everest, due to the earthquake. A week or so before that event we stopped for the night in Tengboche, deep in the Khumbu Valley. From there we had a view of Everest. That night I went to bed in a corner room of the hostel. There was a window over my head, through which I could see Everest with the light of the moon reflecting off of it. It was a terribly cold night and I burrowed deep into my sleeping bag. Then I heard voices and, propped on my elbow, looked out the window where I observed a couple of fellow trekkers. They were standing in the field below my window, wearing puffy coats, and moving back and forth like those who are really cold will do. They were staring at the illumined mountain. Immediately, I was ashamed, ashamed that I was in my bag and not outside in the high Himalayas appreciating the night sky and the great mountains. But try as I might, I could not muster the discipline to get my sorry backside out of my warm sleeping bag. Eventually I drifted off to sleep. To this day and for all days to come, I will regret that. I will regret that I rolled over and ignored the call of that night. We returned through Tengboche after the earthquake. The corner room was gone, collapsed in the quake.

So it is, that I pay special attention to what I see before I fall off to sleep, and what I notice when I first wake up.

“…not of the world of me.”

In Adventure, Philosophy, Religion on November 10, 2015 at 6:11 pm

I had coffee with a friend last week, a novelist. I’d just read a draft of a new book he is working on. It’s a historical novel, set in the middle east in the fourth century. It deals with, among other things, the rise of the early Christian church. Although my friend was not aware of it, I know a thing or two about that place and time. I liked the book and was expressing my enthusiasm.

“You know,” I said, “the major world religions, those that were founded, came out of either the hot desert or the frozen mountains.” He looked at me intently. “And we know,” I opined, “that the desert breeds madness, and the mountains, isolation.” He said he’d never thought of it that way. But I had. “Nobody,” said Mohammed, “becomes a prophet who was not a shepherd first.”

There is that old adage that one is either a beach person or a mountain person. (I guess it’s like being either a dog or cat person.) In this context, perhaps one is either a desert believer or a mountain believer. I know my generalization is not entirely correct. The Buddha came out of the Gangetic plain, but his philosophy got the most lasting purchase at altitude. There’s no such thing as beach believers as far as I can tell, other than golden surfers, but that is a different strain of worship.

If pushed, I’d have to declare myself a mountain believer. That will come as no surprise. That is not to say, however, that I discount desert madness as a practice in insight. Not that one would want a steady diet of it–it didn’t turn out so well for John, the Baptist. It is no surprise that William James’s great work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is subtitled, A Study in Human Nature. Give me the mountains and what comes out of them, that is my nature. This is not to say that the desert doesn’t hold appeal. My first trip abroad as a young man found me eating with a family of Bedouins in the Sinai. If the desert was in the offing, I wanted to be on the move like those people.

Three years ago while hiking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal I came across a holy man living in a cave, attended to by his sister. I paid homage and received a blessing after making a small donation. His cave was filled with iconography and statues. Outside the wind roared; prayer flags flapped. I showed a picture to a friend. “That’s not what I expected,” he said. I think he was expecting something more like a cartoon in the New Yorker.

The isolation of the mountain believer can be dangerous. The Dalai Lama claims that his nation fell to the Chinese because the remoteness of the Tibetan Plateau had made them a backward country, to use his words. Perhaps. It is more likely the Chinese would have invaded regardless of the degree of modernity Tibet had achieved. But dangers persist, regardless, national and human.

Belief without empirical evidence is fundamentally an effort in delusion. I suspect the mystic would not argue with this, the madman wandering the desert with the wild beasts, the recluse scraping by in the mountain enclave. I am envious of such commitment. Go up Cold Mountain and find the great Taoist sage, Li Po: “You asked me what is my reason for lodging in the grey hills: I smiled but made no reply for my thoughts are idling on their own; like the flowers of the peach tree, they had sauntered off to other climes, to other lands that are not of the world of me.” Flowers of the peach tree, indeed.

“Take this,” he said. I refused.

In Travel, Writing on February 21, 2013 at 6:00 am

Mystery Doll of Cusco

Mystery Doll of Cusco

The roof over my office where I write is being replaced. I’ve noted this word “office” before. Office suggests a place where serious business is conducted. There is little I conduct, serious or otherwise, in this space, and such a laden and infused word feels at odds with the spirit of the place.

The building is old, like much of the Old Port, and even five flights up my space has a fireplace and a bold heavy mantle. The fireplace is no longer functional and I doubt it ever was. Who would carry wood up all those stairs? Atop the mantle I keep trinkets from travels. I have a Buddha from Thailand, another one from Tibet, still another one from India, and a beautiful silver Bodhisattva from Bhutan. A room cannot have too many Buddhas. I also have a cast-bronze dragon, long and lean, that I picked up in a market in China. It’s mouth is open and the tongue appears as fire. I just now realize that a fist-size piece of amber I bought in a village in Ecuador is missing. It had a wasp suspended in it, Jurassic Park kind of stuff. I must have lost it in a move. Most unusual is a lead doll. It stands about two inches tall and rests surprisingly heavy in the hand. I was having a restless night in Cusco, Peru, and decided to walk into town. It was dark and the square at the Cathedral of Santo Domingo was empty and I was sitting alone and enjoying the coolness when a man approached me. He was holding a small pouch which he handed to me. “Take this,” he said. I refused. “Please,” he asked. I told him I was just getting some air, that I didn’t have any money. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I came to give you this.” His English was good and he was nicely dressed. He opened the pouch and removed the doll. She is silver and naked and quite beautiful. The man disappeared into the mist. The doll rests in a place of honor on the mantel. Someday I hope to understand what happened that night.

On an opposing wall I have a little shrine, for lack of a better word, to my once-companion, Maggie. I have a couple of pictures of her and her collar. She was often a subject of these pages. Next to her, I’ve pinned a photo of my friend Michael, also now gone. There are other things in the space that I cherish, many of which I’ve attached to the walls with thumbtacks. There are my stamped entry papers to the Annapurna National Sanctuary in Nepal, as well as a thick strand of yak hair my guide, Ram, gave me. He knew I was concerned about a mountain flight scheduled for the next day. The previous day’s plane had slammed into a cliff, killing all but three. The yak hair was to protect me. It did. I have several photographs hung as well, most of them remaining inventory from the gallery I once owned.

I said they are working on the roof over the space, and today upon entering Lucy and I determined that it was not a good day to hang out there. She could not nap on the futon as normal, not with the pounding directly overhead, and I couldn’t hear myself think, not that thinking is always exercised, but it helps. We repaired to home where I write this, noticing, the effect, or lack thereof, an office will have on one. (I note the previous sentence and blame the folks at Downton Abbey.)

In closing…

In Curiosity, Happiness, Life, Memoir, Writing on October 20, 2012 at 6:00 am

Behold the dangerous beauty of obsession!

My life can be easily reduced to phases, measured by degrees of obsession. These phases link to interests, which are sparked by curiosity. I do not know how to be interested in something without being obsessed by it. Obsession and it’s odd opposite twin, Discipline, have been my brightest marching outposts. My capacity to sustain pace is, however, inelastic and, pushed to the limit, fails me. Then, just like that, everything stops. Let me give you an example.

Several years ago I became interested in the classical guitar. I took lessons, went to workshops, sat in on master classes at a world-reknown conservatory. I studied music theory, took classes in composition. I played in recitals, practiced for hours. A guitarist grows long nails on the right hand to pluck the nylon strings of the guitar. One day, out of the blue, I cut my nails and put away the guitar and never played it again.

This pattern has repeated itself for years. Some passions–for that is what they are–last years, some only months. Some are still born and buried the next day.

That, friends, is the position in which I now find myself. I sense the nascent hankering to move on and redirect my laser-view of life. The blog, this house I live in, is on the wan. I trust you understand. You must know me by now, you know I can’t help myself. I figured I owed you a head’s up.

But before I go, please allow me to do something I have tried to not do. I don’t like to give advice. As a writer, I try to practice the old dictum, show, don’t tell. But let me tell you something now that we are going to be seeing less of one another. (“Parting ways” is such a strong and definite phrase–I just can’t go there.)

Let me tell you that life is the adventure–or lack thereof–that you make of it, as trite as that sounds. My flitting from obsession to obsession might appear random and ultimately meaningless; but the reality is that I encourage life to tickle my curiosity. I have trained myself to conform to the nature of my curiosity. There is a great natural harmony to be experienced in such a practice. If I am curious about the classical guitar, I will throw myself into it. I become a musician. If I am curious about the literature of David Foster Wallace, I throw myself into his work. I become a critic. Want to know what sunrise looks like in Nepal? Me too, let’s go, let’s become adventurers! Reinvent yourself over and over. Pursue the contrary, avoid the ruts. Stay interested–and interesting. Nurture curiosity. Allow yourself the freedom to embrace wholly, as well as relinquish freely.

Let us consider how to live, to paraphrase Thoreau. The terms of my consideration are different from yours. But consider we must! There is no greater challenge, no richer reward, than to carve from the marble of life a vision specific to one’s nature. A life well-lived is the greatest art. Become an artist.