I just made my second trip to Myanmar. Or Burma, as the country was once known. My sister Pam and I spent a grand weekend exploring just a few of the thousands of temples at Bagan. [1, 2] Most date back to the 11th – 13th Century.
Along with the temples that seem to grow out of the ground everywhere you look, Bagan is a major center for traditional art forms including lacquerware, sand paintings and wood carving.
On previous trips Pam has purchased hand carved figures from a local artist. We went in search of his shop, and a figure known as a spirit guide accompanied me back to Germany.
Khim Maung Zaw creates and sells from a small shop. He graciously signed the sandalwood figure I wanted, and allowed me to photograph his art.
I am delighted to recommend Mr. Zaw and his beautiful carvings.  His shop’s address is:
I hand-carried lacquer ware and my spirit guide for the long 24 hour journey back home. When I removed all the bubble wrapping he seemed surprisingly alive. I gently unwound the cloth strips, feeling anxious.
I was delighted that he’d survived the trip intact. A spirit guide now stands in my home, pointing the way towards the path to enlightenment. 
I always feel a little strange when I recognize it’s time to mark milestones and I have several to announce.
This is my 99th blog post.
I’ve posted in these virtual pages twice a month since I began way back in September of 2012. It all started with my husband’s suggestion that I establish an Internet presence….
My published books are fiction, and this blog serves as a good place to present excerpts. Potential readers of my books might want a sample of my writing and a glimpse of the human being behind the words. It’s also a place for non-fiction essays. I get to explore ideas and topics that don’t need to be transformed for novels. Posting every other week is great writerly discipline. I’ve never missed a bi-monthly posting date!
…. and this all began simply as a way to introduce my two novels Tsunami Cowboys and Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Both are available at amazon.com in book and eBook form.
It’s been a fun journey these last three years! Thanks to all of you for visiting these pages. I wish everyone the happiest of holidays. I’ll be back in the new year with an announcement. Milestone #2 is on the way!!!
The Germans have a wry saying. “We sent for guest workers, but Menschen came instead.” Meaning that after WWII, the work force of foreigners who came to Germany turned out to be fellow human beings.
I find myself thinking about that saying. The flow of refugees heading this way is huge and overwhelming, and in some ways I am afraid. I love the security and safety of life here, how clean it is. I’m proud to live in a land with universal health care and great mass transit, wonderful street cafés, and (most important of all) the guarantee of personal freedoms and a firm commitment to human rights.
What does this have to do with the hordes of refugees flooding the country? I’m not sure. Maybe nothing at all. But I hear from some of my friends, “What if Europe becomes Muslim? What if the streets are filled next with women in full burkas? What if we lose our freedoms as Germans bend over backwards to accommodate the newcomers?”
They’re nameless, faceless. They’re the others, the ones who constitute a vague but ever-growing threat.
One of my great bonds with the man I married is our desire to explore the world together. We’ve taken vacations in moderate Muslim lands. Every trip was wonderful, filled with people with dreams and hopes like yours and mine. I have a serious disconnect when I try to reconcile the horror of ISIS with the kindness of the friendly people we met in Egypt… Indonesia… Tunisia… Malaysia… Turkey… Singapore. The answer, of course, is they can’t be reconciled. The two have nothing to do with each other.
I’m terrified of the fanaticism that just killed more than 100 people in Paris. The refugees are terrified, too. The people fleeing to Europe want the same things we do: a civilized place to work, live, and raise their children. A stream of humanity is arriving. People with dreams and hopes, like yours and mine.
Each time I go to massage the refugee M. , I’m confronted with my own fear of the unknown foreign.
We have no languages in common. I’m not only working without any knowledge of her history; we can’t even talk. One of her children remains in the room the entire time to translate into German for her.
These are the hardest sessions I’ve ever attempted.
As a therapist my hands know their work; I’m capable to treat her PTSD symptoms. But the person-to-person connection…. I have to do this solely through touch. The afternoons of therapy have changed my understanding of the human dimension. It’s become more complicated, and much simpler. It’s changed me as well.
NOTES:  To respect the privacy of the persons involved I have changed the names and use initials only.
We’ve come to Paris for a quick getaway, and Stuttgart is less than 4 hours by direct fast train. As we think about what we want to do and see, we realize neither of us have ever visited Chartres.
Uwe and I go out of our way to see sacred places around the globe. (See my posts The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ or The Music of the Heavenly Spheres for some photos and tales from other sacred spots.) Energies gather in some unlikely places. Sometimes I stand in famous spots and am disappointed, while a place less known for religion makes me feel the presence of the divine.
Chartres. I’ve been trying for days – weeks, actually – to summarize the “facts” about this site. It was built 1140-1260 and the labyrinth was laid in the first decade of the 13th century. I wonder what to mention about Chartres’ 1,000 years as a pilgrimage destination, or the female energies of the cathedral and their tenderness. Mary’s tunic, the Sancta Camisia worn at the birth of Jesus Christ, was brought here by Charlemagne. The king in turn had been given the relic as a gift during a trip to Jerusalem.
When the earlier church building burned on June 10, 1194, the Sancta Camisia miraculously survived. Chartres remains an important Marian pilgrimage center, and the faithful still come from around the world over to honor it.
Chartres is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals on Earth. Back in my college days at the University of Oregon, Professor James Boren in his Chaucer and Medieval Literature classes explained Chartres as literally turning the architectural form inside out. For the first time the ribs holding up the entire structure had been placed outside, allowing the inside heart of the structure to soar up into the Heavens, seemingly without limits. The support of flying buttresses was necessary because of the unprecedented size and heights of the stained glass windows and the nave. Professor Boren’s face glowed; this stern and learned man radiated as he lectured about a place that he said changed him when he saw it. That lecture and the look on his face stayed with me. Chartres: someday I would see it.
Chartres Cathedral contains one of the few remaining medieval labyrinths. It’s large with a circumference of 131 feet, almost exactly the same size as the West Rose window.
In the Middle Ages, French church labyrinths were the sites of Easter dances involving clergy and the tossing of a leather ball. Sadly, the labyrinths were destroyed, covered over, or hidden by Church authorities suspicious of their powers and pagan beginnings. (Labyrinths, including Chartres’, traditionally had an disk or placque of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur at their centers. In fact, another name for a cathedral that contained a labyrinth was the “Domus Daedali” [House of Daedalus], a nod to antiquity’s Daedalus, designer of the labyrinth that held the Minotaur in Knossos.) *
But, Chartres’ labyrinth survived. I learn that while it’s covered by chairs most of the time, the labyrinth is made free for visitors to enter on Fridays. My one request to Uwe for our trip becomes, “Please let’s go to Chartres on Friday!”
So here we are, entering one of the holy pilgrimage destinations in Christianity.
Chartres. Once inside, the cathedral’s beauty immediately takes my breath away. I am so deeply moved that in the next moment I’m close to tears. Whatever I expected, this sacred soaring space is beyond all imagination. Light streams in through the windows and illuminates the visitors, pilgrims, and the simply curious. All of us are suffused in colors.
For a while I just walk around. Uwe’s already moved off with his camera, ready as always to use his art with photography to capture in images what my brain grapples with in words.
As the minutes pass I grow more and more stunned. And I remain dangerously, or is that gorgeously, close to breaking into tears. There is an energy to this place, a sense of the holy and the really, really blessed, that I have seldom felt anywhere.
The Schwedagon Pagoda in Burma comes to mind. It is the most important pagoda in the country, and I felt the top of my head buzz like it was going to blow off from the concentration of religious energies. Or a back pond in the Adirondacks with only my family as fellow witnesses: loons with a pair of chicks calling in low cries to one another as they eyed us but didn’t swim away. Or a tiny Greek Orthodox church in Thessaloniki, supposedly built on the site where Apostle Paul preached. I attended on Sunday with my friend Cynthia and our Greek host Fotis, who led us up to an altar surrounded by burning, hand-dipped wax tapers. Fotis insisted we take bread from the common basket. Tears streamed on both our faces; I finally felt the deeper meaning of breaking bread in fellowship.
All of these places’ sacred energies are present in Chartres. It is so much more than I deserve or had awaited. I take a deep breath to center myself, and move forward to stand poised at the entry to the labyrinth.
“A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. …
“A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. … It is a metaphor for life’s journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to “That Which Is Within.” At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are. …
“A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved. It has twists, turns, and blind alleys. It is a left brain task that requires logical, sequential, analytical activity to find the correct path into the maze and out. A labyrinth has only one path. It is unicursal. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.
“A labyrinth is a right brain task. It involves intuition, creativity, and imagery. With a maze many choices must be made and an active mind is needed to solve the problem of finding the center. With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not. A more passive, receptive mindset is needed. The choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.” – Dan Johnston, Ph.D. at www.lessons4living.com
While I walk the labyrinth and contemplate the mystery of the sacred**, Uwe photographs me. When I see his photos later I’m surprised, and glad.
NOTES: * Another name for the eleven-circuit labyrinth is the “Chemin de Jerusalem” or Road of Jerusalem. Walking the labyrinth in Chartres or other places could be made instead of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
** I haven’t even tried to talk about the lunations of the labyrinth. Their meaning is still debated. A celestial calendar? Esoteric design of the deeper mysteries?
Walking a Sacred Path. Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Dr. Lauren Artress, Riverhead Books, 1995.
We love travel. I refer to traveling to new cultures and places as connecting the dots. With each trip I feel a little more connected to the world at large and to the various dots that make up my picture of this planet and we who inhabit it.
While in Burma, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Mingun for the day. Yet another fallen kingdom, Mingun is reknowned for the largest functioning bell in the world. It weighs in at 55,555 viss (90,718 kilograms or 199,999 pounds). The sound is a deep claaangg, rung by thumping the bell hard on the lip with a mallet. Mingun is also famous for the king who bankrupted his people with an attempt to outdo every shrine-builder who’d ever lived: King Bodawpaya wanted to build the huge stupa known as Mingun Pahtodawgyi.
It would be the highest in the world, a magnificent 150 meters tall, dwarfing everything built
prior to it.
Work began in 1790.
King Bodawpaya never finished his religious edifice. He ran out of funds; or, halted construction due to a prophesy that his realm would end when the building was completed; or, that completing the stupa would signal his death. An earthquake on March 23, 1839 dislodged the huge bell and damaged the structure beyond saving. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi became the world’s largest pile of bricks…
The structure stands, all semi-finished 50 meters (150 feet) of it, roughly a third of the original planned height.
It’s a holy place and the faithful still come to worship. And the curious come to climb it [enter Jadi and Uwe, stage right]. Now, at any sacred Buddhist site, you remove your shoes at the base of the structure.
And you climb the stairs, barefoot, and then clambor on the ruins, barefoot, for one truly awe-inspiring view of the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding countryside.
Shan pilgrims in traditional outfits had also climbed the stupa and gave us the gift of their smiles and waves.
It was a magnificent afternoon and yet another highlight of our 4 weeks in Burma.
It wasn’t until we were safely home again that I got a good look at Uwe’s photographs.
There was a photo I had taken, too.
All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. And click on the final image to enlarge it for an even better idea of how damaged the site is.
More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.
We made a long trek to reach the Chin State. We had a day pass (tourists are not allowed to remain overnight in the Chin territory) and a guide to translate for us. Our hope was to reach the villages where the local tribes still have elders with tattoos, by tradition only the women. The government represses the tradition, and it was feared that it had died out.
We had no guarantees that the women would come out to meet us once we reached the villages. At some point in the journey I stopped caring, because every minute in Burma was filled with wonders. The long slow passage upriver had become a journey to a some where, a some thing else. We chugged slowly upriver in NW Burma on the Lemro, from the Rakhine to the Chin state.
After walking around for some time in the first village, the elders stood before us! It was literally as if we looked up, and there they suddenly were.
We asked through our guide if Uwe might take photos. The elder women calmly answered in the affirmative. They were, after all, the reason we’d come so far to visit. The tribes are self-sufficient and produce nothing for the tourist market. To meet the female elders is the reason why foreigners come to the villages.
We were meeting Laytu Chin women (also called Lemro or Laito). The Chin are of Tibetan-Burman ethnicity, and tattooing is practiced only among the southern Chin.
To a woman they were calm, poised, and radiated confidence. When did the Chin begin tattooing? One claim is that the tattooing was done to make the women ugly so the Burmese kings would stop stealing them to use as slaves, but this claim has been discounted as myth. It’s our modern world that sees tattooing as unattractive and labels it ‘ugly’. It’s far more likely that the Chin women were tattooed in a rite of passage, and that the facial tattoos are a mark of social status and coming of age. The tattoos make the women beautiful.
No one in the outside world knows just what these patterns signify. The tattoos may be stippling, dots, circles. The Laytu women we met have the most elaborate Chin tattoo, a spider web or rising sun pattern. Our guide told us the men had gathered the materials used in the tattooing process. Jens Uwe Parkitny reports being told that the actual tatooing is done by female tatoo artists.
The women walked us through the village, up to the school. It was originally funded by a foreigner and we were invited to make a donation. It was all very formal: the guide wrote out a receipt along with the amount, our names, and our nationalities.
One of the women was in charge of taking the money and handling the donation, but the task is rotated. He translated our questions, explaining that on each day a different woman takes on this task. The responsibility of supporting the village is shared communally.
On that day we were invited up into a home on stilts. In another Chin village we watched one of the old women work at a handloom. We visited a burial ground on the river banks, where the dead are cremated and offerings are set out for the deceased. When we finally set back down the Lemro River on that December 31st, the last day of the year 2009, Uwe and I knew we had journeyed a very far way indeed.
Once we were home in Europe I found myself haunted by the old women’s faces. We got online and began to search for anything we could find on the Chin.
We discovered that the tradition of tattooing hasn’t died out altogether after all. In his exquisite brochure “Im Porträt: Gesichtstatuierungen der Chin-Frauen in Birma” (“Chin Women of Burma and their Facial Tattoos: A Portrait”), photographer Jens Uwe Parkitny documents the Chin tribes and different tattoo patterns of each group. He has made it his on-going mission to document and bear witness to this extraordinary group of people and their traditions. The text is in German and English. This stunning booklet of photographs can be ordered from either of the following sites:
When Uwe and I discovered Parkitny’s brochure on the Munich museum website, we ordered it immediately. Parkitny has also published a new book entitled “Blood Faces” http://www.bloodfaces.com/ . All proceeds from his book go to a children’s charity in Yangon, Burma.
(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)
More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.
We had arranged in Sittwe for a guide, a boat and a special day visa in order to travel on to the semiautonomous Chin State. The ethnic Chin struck a deal with the Myanmar government at the Panglong Conference. The Chin won’t fight for their own independent state. In return the government basically leaves them alone to manage their affairs.
As we headed up the river the small boat traveled slowly. It was the last day of the year, a calm morning with no winds.
Sky and water reflected one another like twin mirrors.
We sailed on for several hours, and I was overtaken by a sense of displacement that was complete. It was preternaturally still, so quiet and without movement that it seemed we had sailed to a place located somewhere between firmament and earth. It wasn’t quite attached to either.
Finally the boat came to a stop and we debarked and began our walk up into the first Chin village. The villages are extremely remote and what makes them extraordinary (for us anyway) is the fact that the Chin practice the art of tattooing. The tradition had been strongly discouraged by the government since the 60’s, and was believed to have almost died out.
In the villages we sailed to by boat, only the old women were reputed to still have the facial tattoos. The men had gone out into the jungle and gathered the materials necessary for the tattooing process. Several days of painstaking tattoo work ensued; only faces of young teenaged girls were transformed.
We walked through the village with our guide talking to the locals.
Pigs and puppies tumbled on the path as people worked. The tamped dirt was cleared and clean.
After perhaps 20 minutes of walking through the village and watching and being watched, the female elders suddenly appeared to meet us.
Part 3 to be posted soon.
(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)