Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Cheer


Memories of Christmas Season 2008

[Nyerges is the author of several books. This article is an extract from his book, “Til Death Do Us Part?: Lessons that Death Taught Us,” available from Kindle or as a pdf from the Store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]


In the days after my wife Dolores died, I still spent my evenings with Nami and Fikret and Nellie (the little dog that Dolores boarded), cooking dinner, sharing dinner, talking over television.  Both Nami and Fikret were living in rooms in the front part of the duplex.  Nami was from Tokyo, working at a Japanese firm in downtown Los Angeles while she earned her CPA license.  Fikret was a student from Germany who’d be going home in a few days. 

That December was dark, pressing, my mind a constricted box of sorrow and loss. 

A close friend had earlier suggested to Dolores that she take Nami and Fikret to see the annual Griffith Park festival of lights, and Dolores had mentioned it to Fikret.  I brought it up to Fikret and he wanted to go.  I think he was more concerned about me getting out and “getting normal” than he was about seeing some electric light display.  Anyway, he arranged with Nami to go one evening after Nami got home from work, and I drove.

I had never seen the light show either, and though I was in no mood for “joy,” I wanted Nami and Fikret to feel happiness, and the joy of the American Christmas season that the youth can best appreciate. 

My mental state was very constrictive, narrow, even subdued horror.  It was as if I’d been  hit in the face with a 2x4, and I could not see beyond my shocked pain.  But I tried, with great effort, to “enjoy” an evening out with Nami and Fikret as best I could.  It was the weekend after Dolores died.  Nami got home early from work, and it was already dark.  Fikret made a very light meal – more of a snack – for everyone before we drove off to Griffith Park in my Jeep.  I was preoccupied with now living a life turned upside-down, with no perception of light at the end of my tunnel.

Fikret and Nami were noticeably happy, upbeat, and they seemed to be happy to be doing something with me. Fikret had come on a few field trips with, but I’d only gone out rarely with Nami. I know they were both fully cognizant of my pain and I think they were being happy because they wanted me to be happy.  To me, the lights of Griffith Park were a very minor attraction.

As we drove, we spoke about their day, and other light matters.  I always enjoyed talking with Nami over dinner about what sort of day she had at work, and what new English words she learned.  We drove into the large expansive parking lot east of the Los Angeles Zoo, and drove around until we saw where to park for the festival of lights.  People parked their cars, and then boarded buses which set sail every 15 minutes or so, or until the buses were full.  The three of us were the first to enter a bus, so we got the seats we wanted.  A few adults filed in, and then a whole group of school children came in and filled the bus.  The driver turned off the lights, and we were off down the two miles or so of the electric light display. 

The children spontaneously sang Christmas carols at the tops of their voices. Nami and Fikret tried to follow along:  Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Silent Night, all the classics.  Mostly, the children sang enthusiastically and loud with lots of laughter for the first verse until the song faded as the children didn’t know the words. After loud laughter, another song would begin.

I could tell they were all having great fun, though I was barely there. I had to shut off most of my painful feelings and emotions and turn on only that part of me that was needed for ordinary interactions with others. I was glad that there was so much happiness in the world.

I was in a darkness of my own, alone, as if I was severely and suddenly cut off from all that was important to me.  Which was, in fact, what happened.  After the light show, we returned to the Jeep, and I drove on in a stupor.  I asked Nami and Fikret if they wanted to see more Christmas lights, and they said yes.  Christmas Tree Lane was impressive, but monotonous to me.  Nami and Fikret just said “Oohh,” and “Ahhh,” and “Look at those, wow!”  I tried to explain the history of Christmas Tree Lane, how I grew up just around the corner, and I drove by our family home on North Los Robles. 

I didn’t want to go home quite yet.  “Going home” would mean that I would go back home alone, would sit there for awhile listening to music or watching TV, feeling the full grief of losing Dolores, by myself.  It meant I would go to sleep with my grief, unable to find solace in music or TV.  I would turn off the TV and music, and in the darkness I would fall into my abyss of sorrow until I awoke the next day. No, I didn’t want to go home yet.

I told Nami and Fikret that I knew of another Christmas light display and we drove across town looking for it.  We never found it, but they got a tour of East Pasadena and Sierra Madre before we stopped for some snacks and finally went home. 

We then went into the front kitchen when we got home, and enjoyed some cookies and coffee.  We all laughed together and we watched a little bit of a Christmas movie on TV.  It was a good evening overall, but it would be a long time before I could feel joy again.

That was six years ago this December. Life goes on. I learned to love again, and I realized that one does not want to “forget,” as we often hear. For me, it was a truly unique and special time to assist one in their final days. It made me feel the value of each day, of each breath, of each moment. And somehow, that death became a permanent way in which I commemorate the onset of the  Christmas Season, which is all about a New Life.

Friday, December 12, 2014

December 12, 2008: The Day I called 911



[An excerpt from Christopher  Nyerges’ book, “Til Death Do Us Part?” (from Kindle or the Store at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.)]

Dolores [Christopher’s wife] had died 3 days earlier, and  in accordance with her wishes, I kept her body (after it had been cleaned and wrapped) in the home.  The room where she was kept had become a makeshift shrine in the last three days. 

On Friday, December 12, we powwowed in the morning to decide the next course of action. I’d found a place to do the cremation as Dolores wished.  I was about to use a well-known company, and received a phone call at a timely moment about another lesser-known company that provided the same service at half the cost.  Indeed, this phone call saved “us” a thousand dollars.  I am sure that Dolores would have been happy to save money on her own cremation.  In fact, she and I often lamented the fact that we couldn’t (legally) just be buried in our own backyard, or set up a funeral rack or cremation rack like the Indians of the Plains did a few hundred years back.

I made all the arrangements with this more economical company, and explained that Dolores had died on Tuesday and was still at home.  They told me that they would not do anything until after the County Coroner was called, following all legal protocol.  So, I planned to have as many friends at the house as possible once I called 911 – which was how the procedure started.  I wanted to have good support once the police and the others arrived.  I was told that I should also be prepared for the possibility of being arrested, since this was definitely not the legal protocol for dealing with death.  Before noon, Marilyn, Prudence, Julie, and Victor assembled.  I called 911, and explained the situation.  My heart was pounding.  I said, “Please do not come with sirens blaring.  Dolores has been dead three days.”  “OK,” I was assured.

Within 10 minutes, the circus began as paramedics and police arrived. I had propped open the front gate and door so they could all just come in and out at will.  A female police office stood around and observed while five or six paramedics filed in and out of the bathroom to examine Dolores.  Marilyn represented herself as my minister, and she took a lot of pressure off of me as I was being questioned.  It turned out that Marilyn actually knew the police officer’s commanding officer through some of her community work.   Marilyn was incredibly helpful. 

The fire department investigator first spoke to me for about 45 minutes, trying to fit my responses into the boxes on his form.  “This is very unusual,” he kept saying.  “We haven’t seen a case like this for a very long time.”  But he was very interested in what we all did to preserve the body.  “How did you know how to do all that?” he asked with genuine curiosity.  “Was it some sort of Egyptian thing?” he asked, apparently referring to ancient Egyptians’ practice of mummification. 

“We just did it,” I told him. “We just proceeded step by step, trying to fulfill Dolores’ wishes in the best way we knew how.” I told him that we had never done anything like this before, but we knew about the preservative qualities of Aloe, and we just did what made the most sense, and watched the results.

Next, the police officer asked me the same questions, but she seemed a bit more suspicious than the fire department investigator.  But after awhile, she told me that foul play had been ruled out and they decided there was no need to remove Dolores’ body to the coroner downtown.  There was no need for an autopsy.  I was free to call the mortuary to remove Dolores’ body for cremation, and they all left by 2 p.m. 

Prudence and Marilyn were stunned by this, pointing out how unprecedented that was to not remove the body for some autopsy, especially under such unusual circumstances.  And yet, we also knew that Dolores’ wishes were being fulfilled as there would be no unnecessary cutting up of her body.

Interestingly, Dolores’ death certificate says day of death is December 12, which is the date the coroner inspected the body, not the day she actually died.

I then called the mortuary that I’d arranged to do the cremation.  Within 30 minutes, two very polite black-tied men arrived and carefully removed Dolores from her three-day resting place “shrine.”  They placed her on a gurney and wheeled her away as I said my last tearful goodbyes, with Nellie by my side wagging her tail.

Nellie ran around pensively, and I wondered what Nellie was aware of and if she sensed Dolores’ passing. (Nellie was the little dog that Dolores was boarding as part of her dog-boarding business).

Suddenly the house was empty.  I was exhausted and I wasn’t going to jail.  Dolores was gone.  I sat for awhile and stared out the window at the tall dead lamb’s quarter plants that attracted sparrows who ate the seeds.   I felt tired, empty, but I liked looking at the little birds who found food where there appeared to be none.

I wondered to myself, now what?  What will I do with the rest of my life?  I ‘d grown so close to Dolores as a friend.  I had developed so much respect for her, and saw her as a near-saint, and I had felt absolutely honored to work with her, to assist her, and to be a part of her life.  Now I stared into the void.  My own void.  Emptiness.  Life without Dolores. 

After awhile, Fikret came over and offered to drive me to the post office, one of my well-known daily rituals.  He sensed that I could use a rest, and he said I shouldn’t be driving.  We talked about mundane things and occasionally about Dolores.  I could tell he wanted me to be happy. 

Time took on a different element.  Fikret and I went to a restaurant, and I realized I was eating slowly because once I finished eating, I would have to get up and make some decisions about going somewhere else and doing something else.  That sounds ridiculous now, but time took on a wholly different nature.  I wasn’t sure who I was.  I was no longer sure what was my driving force in my day to day world.  In fact, I looked around at things a lot that day. It was the first time I’d been out without the pressure of worrying about Dolores’ well-being.  The world was a different place.  Everything was the same, but everything was different.  It seems very foreign to even try to describe it.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Post-Thanksgiving Considerations



[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” and other books. He conducts classes in practical self-reliance. He can be reached at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90401, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

Black Friday.  When I was a child 50 years ago, we never heard that word.  Oh, it was around, and it seems to have taken on a heightened life of its own in the decades that followed.

I can recall that in my world as a child – which was the vastness of Pasadena – every store closed on Thanksgiving. The streets were quiet, and you knew everyone was home preparing a meal, or they’d driven away to some other town to visit relatives.   But commerce ceased.  You were pitied if you had no family, and you were looked down upon if you kept your business open.

“Too bad that guy has to actually work on Thanksgiving,” we’d hear my father say.  Most businesses were closed, and when my father realized that he had no working batteries for a camera or flashlight, he’d send one of my older brothers on a mad dash to find a store, any store, that was open and sold batteries. There was no internet, and no easy way to figure out who was open and closed unless you spent an hour on the phone. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a bad idea to have a store open.  Of course, my father would be furious and he’d blame it on someone else for forgetting to stock up on some batteries. Usually, my brother would be gone an hour or two, but somehow managed to come home with the needed batteries.

Still, there seemed something very special to demand of yourself that Thanksgiving be set aside for family, for remembrance, for breaking the spell and monotony of work only and working only for material goals.  In the United States, that used to be Sunday where people took the day off.  In some areas, Sunday is still to the week what Thanksgiving is to the year.  For example, try finding an open store in Utah on Sunday.  Oh, you’ll find one, but not until you do a bit of searching.

Our values determine who we are, and who we become. In this world, everything seems to drive only the materialistic instincts.  Merchants cannot wait even a few extra hours to open their doors for the Black Friday specials, and we are encouraged to rush out the door and buy now before the next guy gets the discounted item offered to the first 50 folks who push their way into the door.

The mindset is rampant in our society.  A natural hillside, and lush trees on a lot, are described as non-performing real estate.  Relaxing on  a Sunday  is thought of as being lazy.  Studying esoteric literature is regarded sometimes as impractical.   We are fast becoming a nation of  non-thinkers, and it is usually (but not always) when we break out of our routine and out of our comfortable box of thinking that we rise to who we really are as spiritual beings, and live lives which reflect some higher goal. 

I want a low price and a deal just like the next guy, but I am not willing to do anything to get that deal.  I regard Thanksgiving day as nearly sacred, the closest thing we have to national holy day where we attempt to ponder who we are, what we are, what we did right, what we did wrong, what we need to do next.  To quickly eat a slice of turkey and then some cranberry, and rush out the door to fight the mobs to get a deal is nearly sacrilegious in my thinking.

I have both good and bad memories mixed into Thanksgiving. By my teens, our family Thanksgiving gatherings were crowded, loud, raucous events that started the night before and included the whole weekend.  Yes, there was the prayer that my mother insisted upon, and there were moments of quiet reflection. My mother began forcing each of us to say what we were thankful for, and with close to 20 people in a room, that could take a while. But then, food and wine and beer was served, and the “conversation” was more like non-stop yelling, while the TV played a football game in the next room at the highest possible volume. 

No wonder I got to the point where I told my parents I would not be there on Thanksgiving.  I didn’t try to make them feel bad by giving them all my reasons, but I did come the next day with my wife and we’d sit quietly and talk for awhile when the mob was gone.  At first, my father called me a bad son for not showing up on Thanksgiving, but eventually he enjoyed the more thoughtful visits.

This year, I went to a local park with a small group and we together shared Native American skills that the east coast Indians would have taught the starving pilgrims of the Plymouth Rock colony. We taught about wild plants, and making fire, and weaving with natural fibres, and weaponry, and painting with natural minerals.  Yes, we had some snacks, but it was not about food. 

It has taken a long time to find what I consider a better way to commemorate this very special day. It was thoughtful and quiet and insightful while our small group learned and talked together. We shared the myths and the realities about the people at that “first Thanksgiving,” and looked at how the Indians were thanked for their generosity.  There’s a lot buried just beneath the surface that is so relevant to each of us today that it’s a shame more of us don’t open our encyclopedias and explore these American roots.

Like so much of American history, there are plenty of myths, and plenty of facts. And like so many of American holidays, commercial interests seems bent on convincing us that “buying stuff” is somehow synonymous with commemorating the special day.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Why Go to the Mountains?



This is the epilogue to my "Enter the Forest" book. 

[Nyerges is the author of “Enter the Forest,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” and other books. He has been leading field trips into the mountains since 1974.  He can be reached at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]

In his classic book, “The One Straw Revolution” (Rodale Press, 1978), Masanobu Fukuoka describes his path that led him to natural farming.  When he was  young, he had a realization that completely changed his life.  It was hard for him to put it into words, but he described it like this: “Humanity know nothing at all.  There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort.”  His experiences in the world seemed to verify this realization.

Years later, after contracting acute pneumonia from what he describes as “an aimless life coupled with fatigue from overwork,” he was hospitalized.  Upon his release, he experienced great depression and wandered about.  He collapsed on a hill overlooking the harbor, and spent the night there. He was awakened by a great heron flapping its wings and crying.  His realization came back to him, and the words that came from his mouth were “In this world this is nothing at all.”  He felt as if he understood nothing.

He returned to his father’s farm in the country, and began the path that led to his radical way of farming, letting nature teach him what is best, using no pesticides, doing no tilling, pulling no weeds, and  -- remarkably – eventually producing crop yields the equal of conventional farmers.

Why do I go to the forest?  I think of Masanobu Fukuoka whenever someone asks me that.  Going to the forest isn’t an escape from the nothingness of modern urban life, but it does provide a chance to allow one’s self to come forth.

One day in late winter, we’d just finished a day of intensive outdoor training in the foothills of the Angeles National Forest.  We were now back at our cars, saying our goodbyes, when one woman asked me, “Don’t you ever go to the mountains just for fun?”  She looked quizzically at me, waiting for an answer to her sincere question.  I had to think for a moment.

“Perhaps my difficulty is with the word fun,” I finally responded.  “To me, fun implies frivolity, diversion, and something not to be taken seriously,” I slowly responded. “So I rarely go to the mountains for fun.  I enjoy studying nature, learning new things, expanding my ability to see the unseen, and developing new skills.  These serious pursuits are my ‘fun’ since they provide me with a means to stretch my limits, to grow, to seek to find meaning in a world that sometimes seems to have no meaning.  So I go to the mountains for my spiritual nourishment.”  She nodded.  I didn’t want to seem overly philosophical, so we said our final goodbyes and departed.

Since then, I have considered her question.

People today spend billions of dollars talking to psychologists, and self-improvement seminars, and seeking out various self-appointed “masters” who suggest they know “the way.”  The reason for this occasionally desperate search for “answers” is that our society  has cut us off from raw nature.  The result seems to be that we have lost touch with our inherent but dormant spiritual faculties.

We live our lives cramped in houses and apartments and freeways in a highly structured organized society.  We thus have lost a healing and a grounding that people closer to the earth took for granted.

I am not one who believes that closer contact with nature automatically  imparts a greater spiritual wakefulness, more awareness, deeper sense of the meaning of life, etc.  Observation demonstrates that people who are lazy, sloppy, wasteful, and unaware in their urban environment will practice those same bad habits when they go to the country or wilderness.  Some prophets of the wilderness suggest that if we all went back to the wilderness, the world would be a better place. That’s simplistic and silly.

The unexplored wilderness that we need to investigate is within our own minds, and in the hills and valleys of the unused portions of our brains.  And, in general, two things are required in order to find and to explore that inner wilderness.  One is a guide – someone (or something) to point the way.  Usually this is a person who has already traveled the path ahead of you.  Another requirement is to get away from the patterns and paradigms of man so you can attempt to discover a natural rhythm, and so you can attempt to listen, and to see, and to think, in ways that no one could do for you.

So that’s part of what I attempt to do.  I go to the hills and valleys and rivers and mountains and deserts of the Angeles National Forest and beyond to find myself, to re-awaken and to revitalize that inner spiritual part which is usually assaulted non-stop in the urban wilderness of man.

Still, for awhile, I couldn’t get her question out of my mind.  “Don’t you ever go to the mountains just for fun?”

I had to think back 45 to 50 years ago when I began my treks to the mountains in earnest.  Yes, back then, sometimes I did go just for fun, to pass the time, to avoid boredom, or to exercise.  We walked from our home up to the hills, and explored the trails, caves, and old forgotten sites.  We could walk a few miles up the street from our home, and then hike on the mountain trails to old cabin sites and ruins of the old resorts right up there in our extended backyard.

At a very early age, I began to think about life’s “big questions,” and I read books voraciously.  I found some answers, but concluded that true answers are personal and can only be found through personal realization.   Thus, I set out to find my Self, to awaken that Self within, as my individual quest.  In a sense, I had the same realization as Masanobu Fukuoka, except that instead of going to the farm to find answers, I went to the hills. 

So why did I find myself dwelling so much on the question posed to me?  I suppose it is because I have drifted.  In my youth, I knew that all answers were obtainable from within, if you only had the clarity to define your quest, and the patience and concentration to pursue the answers.  I knew this from my own personal experience, and from an inner knowing.  But, as I became more enmeshed in the adult world of jobs and bills and resumes and rents and mortgages and repairs and insurance and taxes and business ventures and organizations and worldly success and failure and politics and social issues, and on and on – well, what I think happened to me is what happens to nearly everyone, except most people seem barely aware that anything at all has happened.  This external “self” slowly becomes the master, and the inner Self is forgotten.

So I go to the mountains to look, in order that I may see.  I see, in order that I may remember.  I remember, in order that I might Learn.  And my goal is to learn one new thing each time I visit the hills.  One new thing, whether from my own thinking and observation and memory, or from another person.

And as a result of being born right here at the base of the these mountains, these mountains are not only my home and “backyard,” but they have been my spiritual training ground.  I regard these mountains as sacred since they provide me (and you) with the means to escape the complex artificial order of man, and to find True Self if I work at it.

That is why I go to the mountains.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Water in Mexico




The picture shows a light-colored tinaco in Merida.

[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. He has led survival skills classes since 1974. He can be reached at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]

I’ve heard it so long that it sounds like some religious mantra:  “Don’t drink the water in Mexico.” 

The meaning is that a visitor to Mexico should not drink the water untreated.  And why is that?  One explanation that I used to hear back in the 1970s when I first visited Mexico was that, while every place has its own bacteria and organisms in their water, one will get used to the organisms in their water after a while.  And supposedly, this also meant that native Mexicans could drink their municipal tap from the water without concern. When I went to language school in Mexico, I always boiled my water or added water purification tablet to the tap water, or purchased bottled water.  Back then, I never thought about asking native Mexicans if they drank their water out of the tap.

More recently, having visited the Yucatan region several times, I asked some of the natives about this.  These days bottled water is everywhere, and most of the people whose homes I stayed in  purchased all their water and did not drink from the tap. When I asked whether or not they’d get sick by drinking water out of their tap without purifying it, they shrugged and said they didn’t know. They buy their water.

Finally,  I met someone who seemed to know a thing about the Mexican water situation.  I asked Julia, who was an American who married a Mexican man and now calls the Yucatan region her home where she and her husband run a farm.

“Do you drink from the tap directly?” I asked Julia.

“No, though I’m not afraid to,” she responded. “If I’m out in the fields and I’m thirsty, I will drink from the hose and I don’t get sick.  But usually, we buy purified and filtered water and they deliver it to our home.”

Julia went on to explain that the tap water is used directly for washing, brushing teeth, irrigation, etc.

“When people say not to drink the water in Merida (Yucatan), I don’t believe the reason is that the water has bad bacteria.  I believe it’s because the water here is very high in minerals and calcium, etc. And it’s those minerals that might cause sickness if you’re not used to it,” explained Julia.

I asked Julia about the people living in all the small villages where they could not afford to buy water. “I don’t know what they do,” responded Julia.

“However,” added Julia, “I’ve been told that in 20 years or so, you won’t be able to drink the water in the Yucatan region because it will be so polluted.”  Julia pointed out that all the water in Yucatan comes from underground, and that the soil is very porous.  She adds that everyone uses septic systems in Yucatan, and there is no sewer system (like in most parts of the U.S.) where the waste water is treated before it is discharged into the soil or water.  Although the local politicians all talk about installing a sewer system after each flood, Julia doesn’t think that will ever happen because of the immensity of such a project.

“Because the soil is so porous, when chemicals are used, they go directly into the ground water,” she says.

“So, because there is no sewer system, there is flooding after every major storm, and everyone blames the mayor and they elect a new mayor who makes new promises, and then it rains again and floods again because nothing was done.”

I concluded that it was a good thing for me to buy my water, or purify it, whenever I travel.  And it’s not wise to judge the water of such as large country as Mexico with one yardstick because the “water situation” of any country is vastly more complex than what I’ve presented here.  Unfortunately, we should be suspect of most tap water and most open sources of water, wherever we are.

I asked Julia about the black tanks on nearly everyone’s roof in most parts of Mexico. “Those are called tinacos,” Julia told me, which my dictionary told me simply means “water tank.”

In the United States, people often let their water run a bit so it starts to cool off.  However, due to the lack of pressurized water in Mexico, most homes and buildings have large water tanks – tinacos – on their roofs. These then deliver the water by gravity as needed.  But since these are traditionally black, the coolest water comes out first and then the water gets hotter as you let the tap run because the water was heated by the sun.  Now you can find tinacos white or light-colored so that the water is not heated so much by the sun.

[Did  you have any comments or questions about this story? I'd love to hear from you!]