Sunday, June 14, 2009

Nor'easter, Part 3: Goodbye Monks, Hello Dalai

Nor’easter: Being a Whirlwind Snowy Trip to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City or How Van Gogh and a Herd of Alpacas helped Lee get her Groove Back.

Second day: Morning. Goodbye Monks, Hello Dalai.


We rise a bit before seven and the first thing I do is look out the window to see the cars, pavement, roofs, covered in snow. I noticed, last night, the car had an ice scraper in the trunk. We may well use it soon.

We shower and pick out the day’s dress. Long johns for Lee under a shirt. Special thin long johns under her dungarees. For me, a long sleeve charcoal long john shirt with buttons, looks like a jersey, and generic long johns under my dungarees. Each of us has a leather jacket. We wanted our longer coats but there is only so much we could take on a plane. Slowly, surely, car travel seems much more the luxury than travel by plane. The luxury of time. The luxury of space.

We dress, all the while marveling, as we do when we travel, at the TV. Not so much the TV, of course, but the regional differences that can still be found in the programming. Different accents, different emphasis on different stories, more of one type of commercial than another. Local flavor can still be seen, though it is often subtle.

Of course, one of the big differences is not just due to the area but the area at this time of year. The weather reports suggest several inches of snow. There are ski commercials, farm commercials and commercials for various animal-related fairs as well. No idleness during the winter months.

We eat breakfast. Apples. Bananas. We know Rachel will be here at eight and we don’t want to be late. Today, we are hers for wherever she wishes us to be. And the first place to be is outside at eight.

And so we are. Gloved. Scarved. Hatted. I have leather gloves, a newsboy hat with a brim just big enough to keep the bright sun out of my eyes and a cashmere scarf I never get a chance to wear. Lee has gloves we just purchased for her, Thinsulate within, leather without, and a stocking cap. I tried to find her better gear, and find I did. But the interest was lacking. At least I managed to get her into a pair of hiking boots.

Standing in the lobby of the Eastonian, we see a car pull up. It parks, driver window open. It’s Rachel. Window open. Open. This is not starting out well.

Out we go to meet her. Her window is broken and will not roll up. Ok, we could have met her at her house. No problem. She tells us she’s used to it. She is dressed in a T-shirt and sweat shirt. Last report was it was 22 degrees. Lee tries to give her another sweat shirt for under it but, no thanks. Rachel says she is fine. Neither one of us believes her.

We walk over to our car. It is covered with a fine powdery snow. I open a door and nearly all of the powder falls to the pavement. We get in, Rachel pulling up the seat to sit in the back, and closing the driver’s door, shakes the remaining powder from the front and back windows. Lee does not want to drive but can’t sit in the back. She never can for more than a very short distance. Rachel is sure she can direct us from the back seat. Off we go. Where to turn? What is that? What does that mean? A new town and I am a kid - curious and fascinated.

The first stop is actually in New Jersey – The Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Howell, Washington County. It should be but a half hour away. It is listed as a monastery and welcomes visitors. According to the website, it is the home away from home, at least in the Northeast, of the Dalai Lama and it is where he does the bulk of his teaching in the US. There is a stupa there I have wanted to see and this snowy day is my opportunity.

But first, we must go through downtown Easton. This won’t take long and I drive slowly, even considering there is ice on the road. The buildings seem odd and it is a few moments before I realize it is simply because they are old. Old. Not in ill-repair. Not at all. But not modern. They have character and a scale more human than I have often seen. We drive by Lafayette College and it is quite a sight. Beautiful, up on a hill in the center of downtown surrounded by trees that must provide needed and appreciated shade in the summer.

At the very center of the downtown area, as per design and practicality, by the grace of fortuitous geography, on one side of the town square, where the Bushkill flows, is the old Crayola factory. Long moved to the outside of town and having significantly cleaned up its act, folks here used to be able to tell what color crayon was being made that day by the color of the Bushkill. Now the old factory building is called Two Rivers Landing. The Crayola Factory, a museum and activity center based on the much-loved company and product, takes up the bottom two floors. On the top floor of the three story building is the National Canals Museum.

The Northeast has the bulk of the navigable waterways in North America. Not the biggest rivers, perhaps, but the most, often the deepest, and easiest to get a ship down. Or, if not a ship, a boat or barge. Goods moved from place to place by water more than most people think. And, when there was no river, a canal could be built. The best known of these is the Erie Canal in New York, but there are many important canals and many still in use. This area long depended on the Lehigh, Delaware, and Morris Canals and the Lehigh and Delaware Canals meet right here in Easton. The Bushkill behind us, two canals within walking distance and the Delaware River but a mile away.

It is the Delaware we are headed toward now. On the way I notice there appear to be many more chiropractors' offices and tattoo parlors than most places I have been. Any place I have been, actually. Often next to each other. Getting a tattoo must be more rough than I thought.

As we come over a hill, in sight are the Delaware and two bridges less than three blocks from each other. Also in sight, over the Delaware, is Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Rachel has me take the closest bridge, called the old bridge. "Is that its name?" No. I had asked about that the night before as well when first seeing the two bridges. The old bridge to Phillipsburg and the new bridge to Phillipsburg. No one I asked, and I asked quite a few at Tick Tock, knew the name of the other bridge or why there was a new one. And the new bridge cost seventy-five cents to cross leaving people to routinely shun it for the old bridge which crosses the Delaware just as well as the new one.

How can no one know the names of these bridges? There is really the excellent reason for this. The names are horrid. Not exactly names to trip off the tongue or lodge in one's memory. The old bridge is The Easton-Phillipsburg Toll Bridge and is part of US 22. It does have a toll, it turns out, but only coming into Pennsylvania from New Jersey. The other bridge is The Northampton Street Toll Supported Bridge and it has tolls both directions. It should be noted the new bridge was damaged by Hurricane Diane in 1955 and later repaired so even the new bridge is not exactly new. Still, it is easy to see why the spans are called the New Bridge and Old Bridge.

Just before we get to the bridge there is a steep bank to the south and then to the east again with a rough rock wall to the south as the road circles around Lafayette College and cuts through the solid rock which rises on the sides of us as we sink to river-level. Roads cut through the land are common in this part of the country. They are called roadcuts, as a matter of fact, and are often studied by geologists, who let the roads folk do the work and then come in to study the strata uncovered and material left over. You can even find them in cities such as this one in Easton and right in the middle of Philadelphia. It is not strange at all to see rock walls on either side of the road, and amazingly close stones jutting out as though one sneeze at the wrong moment, one twitch of the hand, will leave a driver without a passenger-side mirror or a passenger side all together.

The rock wall, as we approach the bridge, drops suddenly just as the road curves, just when you think you might hit the jagged granite and slate, there is nothing but drop. Nothing but air and treetops as the land falls away.

"That's called Cemetery Curve," Rachel tells us.

"Why? Is there a cemetery at the bottom?"

To my surprise, the answer is yes. There is a cemetery at the bottom of Cemetery Curve.

"Did they name it for the cemetery or did they put the cemetery there because that's where all the bodies piled?"

"You know, I'm not sure. It was probably easier just to leave the bodies where they landed. Less hauling."

I'm thinking we might not make it to New Jersey.

Finally, over the bridge, the geography changes instantly as the geology does. Granite and slate becomes dolomite and pegmatite, pinkish in color, and there is less roll to the hills, fewer rocks cropping up. The buildings, as well, are more composed of wood, more clapboard than stone. That we are in a different place is apparent. We continue to head out on US 22 though Phillipsburg to Howell. Among the bedding stores, the auto repairs, hardware stores, marts, offices, shops and restaurants, we pass a foodstand, an old gas station by the looks, white, wood. This is the sort of place one stands outside of and orders while the people inside make the food. The kind of place people congregate round during fair weather. This is not fair weather but I am no less intrigued by Toby's Cup.

The cup in Toby's Cup is not for soup or coffee. The cup is a bun and this is a hot dog stand. Not a bun in the sense most people think of one. It is a steamed bun without opening at either end, forming a long cup, a trough, for the hot dog and a slice of pickle, sauerkraut, onions and various other condiments to be loaded into. The hot dog is not broiled, not boiled, not baked or steamed - it is deep fried in peanut oil until it screams and splits. A Splitter it's called, not surprisingly. I saw this on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations special show on New Jersey and decided, if I found one, I'd try it for sure. Once. Just once. I would stop for one now, regardless of the early hour, if Toby's was just open. Once. Just once.

As we drive, Rachel points to the north at a gap, a wedge cut in the mountains. Wind Gap. Wind Gap is where the Delaware used to flow, she tells us, dividing the mountains for millions of years millions of years ago until acted upon in a manner so startling and violent, the flow shifted miles away to the present location, now called Water Gap for clear enough reason.

But this is not correct, alas. This is an area where the North American and African continental plates meet. Many streams once flowed from the north to the south through this area. One by one, the streams eroded wider and wider beds through the soft lime leaving the harder rock, sandstones and conglomerates, much less eroded and formed these old, now rolling, mountains, part of the ancient, even by mountain standards, Appalachian chain. The widening creeks and rivers, one by one, found the crack, the cleft that divided the plates, and the rivers were “captured.” Over time, more and more rivers joined them, eroded the crack to a bed to a cleft to a gap.

As it is now, Water Gap is a mile wide from New Jersey’s Mount Tammany at 1,527 feet to Pennsylvania’s Mount Minsi at 1,463 feet. The Gap is about 1,200 feet deep from the tops of these mountains to the surface of the Delaware which, itself, is, at this point, 290 feet above sea level and fifty five feet deep.

And Wind Gap was and is for wind.

After a while we come to the monastery road - a sharp, sudden left turn on a snowy steep hill, and pass it hearing “there it was” from Rachel. Another quarter mile and we find a safe place to turn around and slowly make the right onto the road, winding up and up, my wife wincing at the drops and occasional small skids, past farms and stables and homes and then, on the left, Tibetan prayer flags. We turn in.

There are two buildings. One looks like a large home, in the back of the property. Perhaps in the back. There may be more land, much more land, behind it but I cannot tell. To the right is a large hall. At least it looks to be a single large open room, with a wrap-around porch atop stairs atop a hill.

But this is all dwarfed by the stupa, high, round and white in the middle of the icy field. It is the first thing we see as we enter the gate and it dominates the scene. We park in front of the hall in the gravel spot large enough for only half dozen cars.

It takes us a few moments to gather our warm things and, in the meantime, Lee notices, out loud, this place appears to be empty. We leave the car and carefully walk to the one hundred foot or so gravel path to the hall steps. In the distance, the door to the distant house opens, closes loudly echoed on the ice and down the stairs, across the field, a short, many-layered lady approaches, calling to us. She introduced herself as Diana Cutler. Later I would find her to be one of the first American students of the center and the one to whom administrative duties were passed when the monks, when the monastery, moved to New Brunswick and the Center, called Labsum Shedrub Ling – simply, The Learning Center, was gifted to the Dalai Lama.

In thick sweater and coat, jeans and hiking boots, Diana has crampons under her soles. “We don’t get visitors here in the winter.” She can’t say that anymore. She worries about us falling on the icy gravel and asks us to walk on the side where it meets with the dead grass. There are no monks here, she tells us. And she is headed into town to see her acupuncturist. But she has a little time and we can see the study hall and learning center. We walk carefully where she instructs us and hold the railing up the wooden stairs. The double colonial doors are not locked and she bids us leave our shoes outside and we enter.

Fifty by thirty feet, I am guessing. Doors to the left and the right. Meditation cushions stacked against the wall through which we just passed. In front of us, a large alter spans the center half of the wall we are facing. Next to it, on the left and the right, from altar to wall, are bookcases. It is cold in here. There is no heat. There is no provision for heat.

The altar has flowers, statues, candles, pictures, iconography, tankas, incense stacked in tall cans, all in a profusion of color and texture and the closer we get the more interesting, the more fascinating, the more diverse and complex it becomes. There are tiny household statues of stone and pewter. Small necklaces and strands of malas sent to spend time on the altar. Coins cover much of the surfaces that, from further away, seem empty. Much of the color and texture comes from cans of food, boxes of cookies, toiletries. Much of the altar is composed of mundane household items and, along with the statues and candles, it all fits, it is all beautiful and serene and holy. The canned peas are holy. The toilet paper is holy. The toothpaste is holy. The cookies are holy cookies. The razors holy razors. Sacred are the Ritz crackers. Sacred is the cheese. Holy is the mundane. We back up again and it all blends and all is holy.

I sink to my knees, prostrate, allow my forehead to touch the floor once, twice, thrice. I walk up, take incense, light it. Offer it. I leave a few dollars in a box. I fold myself again, to the floor, on my knees and sit. I am quiet.

Lee asks Diane where the monks have gone. Gone they are and gone they have been for quite some time. Once it was home to Tibetan Monks and Mongolian monks in a culture that was mixed so both would feel at home. Then Americans started to enter as well. Americans like Diane and her husband Joshua. Now everyone is gone but them. Gone. Gone by death. Gone by attrition. New monks heading to the cities to be engaged in the compassionate work of the world, easing suffering with hands as well as hearts, to work as well as meditate. Only Joshua and Diane Cutler remain. And, in 1984, the Dalai Lama asked the monastery in Howell, NJ to change the name to The Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center. Now, this is where the lessons are taught when the Dalai Lama is in the NE United States. But not in the winter. In the winter, it rests.

And so do the texts. They rest. The massive shelves hold them. A full third of the wall is covered by them with half one side of the altar and half on the other.

These texts are bound in cloth and are just under a foot long, three inches wide and about an inch thick for the smaller ones to four inches for the heftier tombs. Each has a flap on one end of a specific color. It’s the color that tells the reader the language from which the text is derived, and the further information on the flap tells the title and contents. One holds them or, more traditionally, places them on a small slanted stand, with the long axis from hand to hand, and flips the pages up. Tibetan is read from left to right. These are the books Richard Gere has been spending so much on translating and digitizing. These and others like them from other collections are being saved and translated, made available and read more widely than ever. Perhaps not better understood, but certainly read.

And there are hundreds here, at least. They are stacked long-axis-in on the shelves, which are arranged, further, into cubbies. Six to twenty-four books, stacked three to six high, are in each cubby and there are four to seven cubbies per shelf on seven shelves set atop a set of cabinets and reaching within a foot of the ceiling. They are organized by color. These are the sutras and commentary.

On the bookcase to the left are the sutras, all one hundred and eight, in red. Above them, to the top of the case are the Indian commentaries in blue. Those continue to the next bookcase and, then, above those are the books in yellow – the Tibetan commentary on the Indian commentary.
Diane has to get to her appointment so we start to leave and I turn around for a final look. Once out the door, I see the prayer wheels, again. Each like the next like the one before, each a black cylinder bidding us to open like a lotus. Om Mane Padme Om. May I open like a lotus. I go to the first one on my right. I have never spun a prayer wheel before and, as I do, Diane calls to me. “Start on the other side and walk clockwise.”

I start again, on the left side of the front doors, spinning each, walking, allowing my hand to contact the bottom of each, spinning it as I walk, the next, the next. I turn the corner and continue and I can hear the wheels turn, behind me they slow, the next one start, several turning at once. Each one spinning a prayer again and again and again. Coins are left here and there and I dig into my pocket with my left hand and leave a quarter at the next corner before I turn, not missing a beat. The back of the building, wheel after wheel and another coin to leave at the corner before I turn and the other side of the hall and another coin and then the last half side and the door again. Lee is smiling. She knows I have long wanted to do this. And smiling, we walk down the stairs, carefully, on our non-spiked hiking shoes. Rachel in her sneakers. Diane walks confidently, we, slow and haltingly, carefully, where the iced grass meets the gravel. We thank her and Rachel and Lee go to the car.

The stupa sits large and imposing in the field. Not the tallest in North America. Not the widest or most ornate, but it is the one I am at. There is too much ice to go there but I do regardless, slowly, carefully, crunching and balancing the two hundred or so feet into the field. This stupa was dedicated in 1984 to the founder of Labsum Shedrub Ling, Venerable Geshe Wangyal (1901-1983). And I stand at its base for a short time knowing those behind me are cold. So I turn around and tread to the car.

Once in, we head back the way we came, down and around the mountain, slowly on the icy road, to the main road back to Easton. Tony’s Cup is still closed. Over the Delaware, Rachel gives us directions to her house. Her mother wants to take us to see the sights of Jim Thorpe and some surrounding areas. Not having any idea what she is talking about, we happily give in to a new adventure seeing things we’d never heard of. She has a minivan and will drive. An easy day for us.

Arriving at her house, the garage door is open. Dogs are barking and can be heard all over the quiet, snow-covered neighbourhood. We enter the house to wait for her mom who has taken a half day off work. It is loud with five barking dogs that never cease. It is musty with animal, fur, aroma of cage. Lee exits and waits outside in the cold.

She enters again asking for paper. The answering service called with a new appointment for a new client. We had put off getting an answering service because of the expense. This trip made it a necessity and, searching the Internet, found a local one in Melbourne. The cost is sixty dollars a month. Much less than we had anticipated and added one more example of our not taking advantage of something because of our assumption it would be expensive. Before the day of vacation was out, we’d have three new patients. All while enjoying the Poconos. One day and the service paid for itself nine times over. So much for saving money.

Mom arrives. After a few minutes of hellos and explaining why Lee could not stay in the house, after making sure Rachel was dressed more warmly, we are all into her van and off to see Jim Thorpe. The road is leading up and up while the snow begins to fall.

4 comments:

Sewa Yoleme said...

So did you ever get to Toby's Cup when it was open?

LOVED the image of the toilet paper on the altar. Holy is the mundane, indeed.

Are we going to meet Alpaca Jones in the next segment?

Adam Byrn "Adamus" Tritt said...

Toby's Cup will have to wait. Splitters, in general, will have to wait until I am up thee again or at the Jersey Shore.

As far as Alpaca Jones, we met him on the last day of the trip. You'll just have to keep reading.

Indigo Bunting said...

I was totally swept away with this one.

How do you do this? How do remember such detail that far back? Does your brain work much differently from mine? Do you take copious notes?

Adam Byrn "Adamus" Tritt said...

I can assure you, my brain works very differently than yours. Than nearly anyone's, I am sure.

And I am really REALLY glad you liked it. Only six or eight more parts to go.