Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Back Home

When I arrived back from Africa a couple of years ago I wrote a poem called “Home but not Home.” I am feeling this way today. After three days of being home I find myself slipping in time and space between Thailand and Minneapolis.

Images of Thailand spin in my mind & keep me awake. I say to myself "I am in Minneapolis not Thailand. Go to sleep" However I know better. In Buddhist villages during Songkran a string is threaded from the temple to every home & connects everyone to the Buddha. I believe that one strand of that string attaches my heart to the land, culture & the people. So a part of me remains in Thailand & part of Thailand remains in me.

LA was a perfect transition point before coming back to Minnesota. I was staying in Korea Town and was able to hear an Asian language, had noodles for breakfast and gave and received a bow. Home Sweet home! Another 45% of the population was Latino and spoke primarily Spanish and I don't. So it was not much different then being in Thailand. When the Fed ex man spoke to me in English I almost didn't understand him.

Now when I awake in the morning in Minneapolis I look around my room expecting to be gazing through a mosquito net but there is none. My windows are closed and covered with curtains rather than open with the sun pouring into my room through the grates. In the quiet of the morning I expect to hear the temple bell, the monk’s chant, the rooster's crow, the migrant worker's shout, and the motorcycle's sputter. These were unwelcome sounds in Thailand that invaded my morning sleep. Now these sounds only remain in my imagination. However when I awake in Minneapolis the quiet is deafening.

I would like to share with you one of the major accomplishments while I was in Thailand. The training of Burmese monks by Fortune staff was a breakthrough on several levels. The Burmese monks were trained by two women and a young man. One older man stated that he had never seen monks being trained by women. The Fortune staff realized that they did have knowledge and skills to share with Monks and gained confidence in their abilities. The counselors were able to adapt and create a mental health session for the particular needs of the monks. This process released them from thinking that they needed to follow previous trainings word for word. They now know that they can create specific targeted programs for different audiences. Most importantly the training provided both knowledge about mental health for the monks.

I wish to thank you all for your support. I was not able to answer every email but know I appreciated each one and they helped me feel connected to my home. This ninth and final email brings to a close my sharing of this journey. I hope you enjoyed the correspondence.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Maybe they do not see....

Last night in Fang the beauty of the mountains, the orchards, and the sunset left me in awe. Last night the sight of impoverished migrant farm workers in their row of dirty grey concrete single room homes troubled me and made me reflective. How can such beauty and desperation exist side-by-side? How can a landowner see such natural beauty and not see the desperate conditions of their workers.

Maybe they do not see nor want to see.

Today what seems many hours later I sit in Chaing Mia one hundred miles away still in Thailand but far what seems far from what has been my home for two months. Writing reports, clearing up last minute details, meeting with colleagues, and packing bags I anticipate my journey back to the States. Eighteen hours of travel to LA, a day and two nights in LA and then a flight to Minneapolis.

As I prepare for the trip I keep looking at my wrist. I have two braided bracelets. They are a gift from one of the counselors. She is fiery young woman and she has made the bracelets for me to remember them. She is bold and intelligent. I like her and I will remember her and I will remember smart and energetic P., community oriented K., determined L. and gentle and kind K. Yes, I am anticipating coming home but I am now leaving a place that also feels like home.

Acts of Kindness

Last night was the night that "it" finally happened. One week and two days before I leave for Chaing Mia to come home "it" happened. Not sure what I ate but between "it" and 104+ air temperature and a visit to a small Shan community I became extremely ill. The nurse practitioner at the clinic fortunately spoke English. "It" turned out to be an intestinal bacterial infection and dehydration.

As I was given a shot, three types of medication and electrolytes I began to worry if I had enough money because I didn't think they accepted Blue Cross. However, I didn't care whatever the cost. I just wanted to feel better. The verdict came in the treatment cost 70 Bhat or $2.24. At first I was pleased and felt how cheap the health care was in Thailand. “What is the problem with us in the states?” I thought. And then it dawned on me. The average migrant worker is earning $94 a month or less when they can’t work. $2.24 began to seem like a lot of money.

I am tired but feeling better. My neighbors showed their concern for me in various ways. Every time they saw me they asked how I was. Soon I realized that everyone in the neighborhood knew that I was sick. My nearest neighbor brought a cup of cherry soda with ice and cookies to help me to feel better. Sia Sam, the clinic director, came to visit and insisted on taking me to the coffee shop so I could be in air conditioning during the hottest part of the day. As in Africa when I became sick I just wanted to go home and be in my own bed but just like in Africa I learned that the kindness of others is what matters.

The schedule will be winding down. I have 2 community meetings, some case studies, a planning meeting and a monthly report. Then four days of traveling before I arrive home. I am looking forward to being home but will miss beThailand.

Songkran & So Little/So much

I work on a manual so that the trainings I have done for the counselors can be done again in the future. The group had an excellent session revising training materials on mental health for a session with monks. The session will be given on the 27th. I have one more training, two community visits and the training for the monks. I am starting to feel that time is short. Two more weeks I leave Fang for Chiang Mai and my flight home.

I shared with the director of the clinic that I felt that I had accomplished so little. He responded and said “What seems so little to you is too much for me because now I will need to think about of all of this for a long time.” I felt humbled by the statement. I am so American always thinking that more is better.

Songkran "the water festival" was a combination of New Years Eve, Easter Sunday and the Fourth of July. New Years because it is a three day celebration of the New Year, Easter because the temple celebrates with rituals and prayers, and the Fourth because the day is hot and family and friends gather for parties and picnics. And the unifying theme is water. Songkran are three days in which the profound and the profane meet. I am fortunate to be within a Shan culture region away from the tourist's celebrations in the big cities. I was invited to participate more as part of the community than as a tourist looking for a good time.

Impermanency of Life

I melt into the floor. There is only oppressive heat and the hard cool tiles bring only partial relief. My students also lie on the tiles or sit in chairs next to the open windows. The heat spares no one. The river of humid air fills every corner of the classroom. The slightest breeze mercifully brings momentarily relief but only brings a promise nothing more.

Tonight as I write the memory of the day’s heat I begin to sweat. However, a cool night breeze reminds me that the mountains will soon pour forth a river of cool air and I will shiver as the river flows over me. And I will not shield myself against the cold but treasure the moment for tomorrow I will once again dissolve in the heat of the day.

The last two days I taught Shan counselors about the role of story and narrative in counseling. We reflected on ways to effectively work with individuals who are primarily from oral cultures and have suffered sever trauma. The translation from English to Shan and from Shan to English during the sessions took time and effort but somehow the challenge enhanced the learning.

This weekend I will visit Chiang Ria and will spend time in a border city Mae Sia. Later in the month my plan is to enter Burma and to stay for several days. I have been given the names of people to visit and to learn more about the Shan.

On a sad note I was given a ride from the Monastery to my home in a pickup truck full of young boys. Their laughter and sweetness were infectious. We drove through a neighborhood to pick up one of the boy’s father. The boys were excited because they were going swimming. Tragically the next day I was told that the young boy had died while swimming. In this land of Buddhism the impermanency of life is not only taught as a principle but often becomes apparent in such tragic happenings.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Story, Water and the Sacred

Fifteen hours of workshops in the next two weeks. The intent is to teach experiential exercises that will support the counselors in fostering mental health and to understand how a person's personal and cultural stories affect their behavior. The foundation of all the exercises will be narrative and story in hopes of developing narrative consciousness and narrative therapeutic skills. These two weeks will be the most intense weeks of my stay with very little time for anything.

However, I will participate in two unique and significant celebrations . The young boys are being initiated as novice monks this weekend and in a week or so there will be the water festival. This time of year is when three days are set aside and water is celebrated during the hottest and driest time of the year.

And of course this is Holy Week and the Triduum. I will celebrate at a Shan Roman Rite Catholic Church

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Work in Thailand Plus

The Work in Thailand

The Shan counselors’ dedication and willingness to work hard encourages me in my responsibilities. Without their eagerness to serve and to learn I would not be able to do my work. The constant need to choose ways of teaching that challenges them to become self-directed learners challenges me. This goal is accomplished only to the degree that I allow them to teach me. The two sessions I conducted on story and mental health and one on stress that I assisted taught me about many of the subtle differences between our cultures. One of the major differences is the reluctance to challenge an authority figure and another is the difficulty in self-disclosure. However I must say for many of us counselors, self-disclosure and transparency is not always one of our fortes. In the next two weeks the Fortune counselors will be educating medics, herbal doctors, and local Shan communities about mental health. I am looking forward to experiencing them in action.

A Surprise: Teaching Meditation at a Buddhist Monastery

On Friday of this week (I am 12 hours ahead of you) I had the opportunity to teach meditation at the Wat Sri Boen Ruang Buddhist monastery. Now you may ask why am I –a Western good old catholic boy- teaching meditation at a Buddhist Monastery. Well I mentioned to some of the directors about teaching meditation and how the approach helps individuals to find their natural meditation method and to help those who struggle with meditation. Well it turns out that my approach was very helpful for several western individuals including staff members of the Blood Foundations. I was also given the opportunity to speak with the head Abbot Dr. Apisit. We are to speak again soon to continue the conversation. He is in the process of setting up an international meditation center and I am sure I can learn much.

One Day in Thailand

A wind chime pleasantly rings
a single cicada begins a song
joined by another and then another
I can distinguish each additional cicada
until overwhelmed, my ears
hear only a single blended chorus
an atonal cacophony of sound
tenaciously driven towards a smashing crescendo
and at the very moment that the sound overcomes
every voice stops.
and only a wind chime pleasantly rings.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010


At night I carefully walk up three flights of wooden steps to my room. The steps are too small for my American feet. This morning the red sun arises & peeks over the corrugated roof tops. In Chiang Ria I learned more about the tribal hill people's, attempts to survive & preserve their culture. I made contact with an NGO & spent time at the Hill Tribe Museum. I hope the knowledge & contacts will help me in the work.

a morning in Chiang Ria

The red burning sun rises, music drifts through my window, traffic stirs, roosters crow, and Chiang Ria awakens. I sit on the edge of my bed in a cheap run down guest house and look out the window. The cool morning takes the edge off of yesterday's heat. My mind (filled with images of the mountain side farms, the all night market and the clock tower) tries to grasp and then gives up its attempt to comprehend Thailand. I hope todays visit to the Hill Tribe Museum will help. Tomorrow back to work visiting the Shan communities. The stories are sad and courageous.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Matter of Time

Even before I left for Thailand I wrestled with how to manage my time while I was there. I felt I only had so much time and had so much to get done, to see and to accomplish. I knew I had to use time wisely and efficiently and not wastefully or ineptly.
Two tall strands of bamboo stand a hundred yards from my front steps. They mirror each other though the reflections are not perfect. Standing side-by-side they create a gateway and an ikon to a reality that transcends space and time. I sit for hours gazing upon these delicate lacy growths. A background of grey haze accentuates their presence and in early evening as the light fades they become mere silhouettes against the darken sky. Sometimes I ponder their presence for a moment, an hour and sometimes more. As I do time passes but I do not notice. In the land of a thousand images I contemplate these unruly clumps of bamboo as others meditate on the Buddha.
Time passed today…
The formal training began today. The intent of the training was to integrate the counselor’s knowledge of Western counseling techniques with Shan cultural approaches. There are two young man that spent many years in Buddhist monasteries. My hope is that as we explore they will see ways to utilize their training. When I mentioned that we needed to learn together they looked puzzled. Much of the education in Thailand is in Friere’s work called a “banking system.” We open your skull pour in the information and shut the door. In other words rote learning. One Shan leader called the Shan people “Order People.” He said “Our people are used to taking orders and do not process information.” However another educator pointed out that once their horizons are expanded, they can think with the best... " My hope is that my training will help the counselors to further develop their analytical and critical thinking skills through the use of narrative and story.
We shall see…

Finding My Way

I find myself overwhelmed by all the Buddhist Temples. Every turn I find myself viewing beautiful ornate red, gilded structures. As I walk to the steps, take off my shoes, and begin to walk up the steps a supremely large gold or white Buddha greets me and bids me to be awake.
Interviews and encounters with town folk and with the counselors and others are helpful. Even sitting at the noodle shop at the end of our dirt road gives insight to the resiliency of the Shan. However their resiliency can also hide the deep trauma and losses of the people. One shared about his own flight from Burma and the hope for his people.

I also met Ben and Jill of the Blood-Foundation their work with the Shawn in education and advocacy encouraged me. Their work can be seen at

All I hear inspires me but also makes me wonder if I am up to the task. We shall see.

In the Heat of the Day...

I am now in Thailand in a small village in the North. My home overlooks a valley and in the horizon the mountains arise to spectacular heights. Sadly there seems a permanent haze muting the colors. Orange orchards surround the house and from early morning, through the heat of the day into late evening migrants prune, water and prepare the trees for the growing season.

Met twice with the counselors and feel impressed with their dedication and enthusiasm. We went to the fields Friday for outreach to the migrant community. The migrants start early in the morning and work to dusk. Heat, pesticides and chemical greet them as they enter the fields. They cover themselves from head to toe to protect themselves to no avail against the chemicals. Many show symptoms of chemical poisoning such as skin rashes.

The oppressive heat during the day wears on me but at night a welcome coolness soothes and comforts. I found myself exhausted for several days from the combination of heat and traveling. In those hot heated moments I wondered “What am I doing here?” Today I awoke remembering why and feeling almost rested and ready for the day. However, I have found one unavoidable hazard and that is low doorways. A few bumps already decorate my head.
As in Africa things change rapidly but life moves slowly.