art of alchemy

3 times stranded without cover in sudden rainstorms. 3 expeditions sent to “get help” to pull our minivan out of the mud. 20+ group efforts to push or pull our car out of muck-ruts. 6 snapped towropes. 1 dead engine. 30 miles of ankle-to-knee-deep mud. 700 mosquito bites (averaging 50 per person plus Raphael’s 200). A fair number of unmentionable words sworn. 1 jaundiced leader suffering from a (as of now) confirmed case of Hepititis A. 1 nail-less big toe. 11 pairs of squishy boots. 4 expressed emotional breakdowns (unknown private ones). 4 mysterious rashes. 1 mule stuck in the mud. 1 dead tarantula. 1 hour walking in the dark with 1000 sets of shiny spider eyes reflecting the light of our headlamps. 2 tarps short of covering the hammocks and cooking fire from a sudden downpour…

2 tarps suddenly found to save our dry clothes (and souls) from another drenching. Numerous hysterical laughs when one could do nothing with the situation but crack. 11 of the best Snickers bars ever tasted. 8 hours of the most exhausted, and thus sound, hammock sleeping. 1 graceful surrender for the sake of safety. 1 sunrise at the top of a pyramid at the ruins of Tintal with views of the jungle-covered temples of Mirador and Nakbe peeking above the canopy of the Peten rain forest. Many sightings (and soundings) of both spider and howler monkeys. 5 AMAZING local trek guides with unlimited energy, enthusiasm and knowledge of the forest and its animal and plant inhabitants. 100’s of enormous bright blue Morpho butterflies flaunting their easy flutter as we sludged along. 2.5 oranges per person, per day. 11 bodies surrendered fully and finally to the mud. Dozens of un-excavated ruins left by ancient Mayan civilizations lining, like small rolling hills, both sides of our trail. 5 girls laughing so hard they were mistaken for monkeys. 2 royal “throne” jungle outhouses. 1 ballpoint mustache. 1 impressionable sight of a full chicken bus coming to our tow-rescue. 2 video remakes of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” 11 excited hoops of hurray when the minivan was finally yanked out of the mud. 1 angel sent from heaven with a 4×4 pick-up truck to save us from being stranded. 1 unforgettable experience scarred from skin to soul.

Dear Students,

Our last day was, by any Hero’s definition, “epic.” And although it felt much longer than the 24 hours that a day usually confines itself to, dizzy with disbelief of each unfathomable moment as it fell upon us, I somehow lost the time to communicate my congratulations to you.

I suppose we each have a point where we (think) we can take no more. And to my (perhaps sick, yes) delight, I witnessed many of you reach that point this week. But my satisfaction comes not from seeing you suffer, but from witnessing you each successfully limbo what you thought to be your bar of ultimate endurance. Tears were cried, words were sworn and the existence of hell realms on Earth were certainly questioned. But it is only through these soul-shaking and reality-challenging encounters with our limits that we have the opportunity to push our walls in life an inch out, up, higher and lower; creating some space (in the box of Life that limited perception creates) for us to sigh, breathe, play and grow in confidence.

And isn’t it such a peculiar and relieving confidence that is inspired, not by conquest, but by surrender? Just when we think we have reached the wall of our will, the unfathomable pushes us right through it and we suddenly find ourselves on the other side with the realization that the walls of what we think we can do in this life are actually illusions. And suddenly we are laughing out loud at the all the unnecessary time we spent dreading, worrying, expecting, defining, avoiding, denying and hesitating…

Remember on our first day when we set out in our dry and clean clothes? We took enormous care to scout and then hurdle ourselves to each dry island along the path. We employed machetes to hack down what we thought would be a faster track. At each rest stop we took twigs and scraped the mud from our boots. We cringed at each raindrop that landed on our dry clothes and threatened an entourage behind it. And with such desperation we dug through our bags for our expensive Gortex jackets when the clouds grew dark. But isn’t the rain one to humble even Mr. Gore himself? For as we clearly saw with Storm Stan, is there anything that Rain can’t eventually drench, uproot, sweep away, flood, or famish? Despite what any REI clerk will claim, in the ring between Gortex and a tropical downpour, poor (but expensive) breathable plastic never stood a chance.

And thus we were drenched.

But, really, how often do we humans get truly, thoroughly and without resistance, wet? Looking at my own history of umbrellas, ponchos and shelter-sprints, I’d say I’ve spent a good portion of my life skirting, swerving and scowling at the sky’s natural showerhead. So imagine my surprise when, after observing the unrelenting rain go from saturating my “protective barriers” (2 minutes, by the way, Mr. Gore) to forming an impressive drainage system along the natural divots and divides of my skin, I realized (or remembered?) that the only completely impermeable and breathable material on this Earth is skin. And eyebrows and eyelashes work together as an impressive windshield-wiper team. And, (oh blessed surrender to my 7-year old self!), stomping in knee-deep mud to the tune of a full volume storm is invigorating and liberating!

“Surrender” has gotten such a terribly undeserving bad name in our dualistic-minded society. (But then so have Surrender’s friends “emptiness”, “minimalism”, “death”, “stillness”, “different” and “darkness” – but wouldn’t that be an essay.) Yet in my life I continue to learn that it is not my conquests that make me stronger, but the experiences that humble me in beauty, bigness or recognized brotherhood. Contrary to all I was socialized into believing, it’s the events and visions that make me feel smaller that make me feel more comfortable in my proper (little) place in this world. It’s the ocean, the sunset, the full moon, the dark sky, the pyramids, the jungle, the thunder, the lightning, and yes, a full pummeling by a storm that make me realize just how small I am — and just how “okay” it is to be small.

So we did not reach our original destination. But we did push our inner and collective endurance to heights and horizons that make the pyramids of Mirador look small. Many of us have admitted that some of our most challenging days on this semester, and in the field of Life, took place on that muddy little path this week. But it was certainly an experience worth the lesson of coming to know (intimately) the depth of the mud that we can successfully trudge through. And isn’t it exactly the swamps of life that allow us to walk with renewed appreciation for the ease of the drier paths in Life’s more maintained and manicured parks?

In Buddhism, a “bodhisattva” is one who is enlightened, but consciously chooses to stay on Earth to “participate in the sorrows of the world with joy.” When I look back at the epic tale of adventure that we wrote last week, it’s the picture on the last page that I most remember. It’s the vision of you all — knee deep in the mud, covered in dirt, car broken down, sun setting, mosquitoes swarming, hours away in either direction from any shelter — and smiling. And not just smiling, but laughing, dancing, singing, and sighing at the sight of the near full moon putting a fantastic sunset (and epic day) to bed; participating with joy in a situation that would by most definitions be defined as miserable.

So congratulations to you on an ace on your first exam in Alchemy. For you have all shown yourselves as promising Alchemists — whose art is only that of changing obstacles into challenge, the horrific into epic, the unknown into adventure, misery into magic, metal into gold.


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1 Comment

  1. Your Yiddush Brother November 21, 2005 at 2:02 pm

    When will Sol be taking a trip to Israel?! I think the jewish community can use a touch of Solbeam (sure, a serving of Sol is not kosher but still nutricious!)

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