Friday, December 26, 2008

John, a Light on My Path

In the workshops and presentation that Nancy & I give based on our book Living Consciously, Dying Gracefully: A Journey with Cancer and Beyond, we often ask participants: What makes a good death?

The answers include no pain, time to say good-bye, finishing one’s business, having those you love by your side, being free of anxiety, and being at peace.

These elements can be achieved when one is dying of disease and has the time to prepare consciously for the end, as Diane Manahan did. Her extraordinarily good death is one reason her story is so inspiring.

But what if a person does not have that time?

Last month an old friend from high school, John Osnes, stepped off the curb in Los Angeles one night, and within minutes he was lying on the pavement, having been beaten up and then run over in a road rage incident.

How could his death ever be considered a good death? That is was quick? That he didn’t linger in pain? Those aren’t very satisfactory answers. I don’t know that there are any.

A sudden death may be hardest on the loved ones, such as John’s beloved sister, Kris. How could this have happened? How can one go on when everything is changed?

Quickly come all the arrangements, the phone calls, the obituary, the finances, the notifications, the reality within the unreal situation. In a way, the tasks help loved ones get through the first few days and through the shock, but not through the grief. That will last a long, long time.

I am grateful to John Osnes for a friendship of long ago that was more important to me than I realized at the time. In our small rural Midwestern town, he was a gay teenager. He bravely wore his hair longer than any other guy in Madelia, sang beautifully, played the piano brilliantly, but was harassed by his schoolmates. I was a lesbian teenager, in love for the first time-- with his sister Kris. For a couple of years, John and I formed an unspoken bond in our isolation. Once, over pizza in the nearby “city” of Mankato, we confided our sexuality and our heartaches openly to each other.

Thank you, John, for who you were . . . and for being a light on my path.
P.S. For more information about John Osnes, visit

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Yucatan Travels--Campeche

In Campeche, the capital of the state of Campeche, Mexico, we stayed two nights in the Francis Drake, a slightly worn but very comfortable hotel within the walls of the old city.

In 1999 UNESCO named Campeche a world heritage site and so its gorgeous Colonial buildings are preserved. No two buildings in a row can be the same color, and the city provides the beautiful multi-hued pastel paint from UNESCO funds. The buildings are one or two-stories with no electrical lines swaying overhead. It is delightful to be in the middle of a city and have such an unobstructed view of the sky.

We thought that there must be a financial/business center elsewhere, but no, the banks and government buildings are right there on either side the stone walls that ring the old city. A couple of blocks to the west a lovely seaside walk (El Malacon) stretches for miles along the Gulf of Mexico.

Campeche is a relaxed and friendly city known for its fabulous seafood. We had plenty of it, too! Thanks to the recommendations of Zora O'Neill's Rough Guide to the Yucatan and Kristine at the Flycatcher Inn (see previous blog entry), we visited a row of small, brightly colored restaurants perched on the shore, where fishermen bring their fresh catch. The food is so good that we ate there twice and packed their ceviche (fresh raw fish "cooked" in lime juice with onions, tomatoes, and cilantro) in the cooler for our 8-hour drive back across the peninsula from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean Sea.

Campeche deserves a lot more time. Nature preserves abound in the area, and many Mayan ruins are within easy driving distance. Someday we’ll be back.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

NanBec's Yucatan Travels--The Ruta Puuc

Last week Nancy and I spent a few days exploring the Yucatan Peninsula. In Santa Elena, a Mayan village south of Merida poised on the Ruta Puuc (Route of the Hills), we stayed at the sweet little Flycatcher Inn, which has its own trail through several acres of forest. It made for a pleasant hike and good birdwatching after five hours in the car. Although the town is normally quiet, we heard firecrackers throughout the night as townspeople warmed up for the annual celebration of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.

The next morning we drove ten minutes to see the spectacular Mayan ruins of Uxmal, which fell into decline around 1000 CE. The site is impressive with its huge buildings and the wide expanses of well-tended lawns and shade trees. The view from the top of the palace is spectacular with ruins poking out of the surrounding forest.
One building that especially caught my attention was the Magician’s Temple. Its base is oval rather than the usual rectangle, as shown in the picture above.

After Uxmal we took the Ruta Puuc to four other Mayan ruins, all of them amazing in their own way and quiet as few tourists visit them. Puuc architecture is a special Mayan style. One of its distinguishing characteristics is the rows of segmented columns that resemble bamboo poles.
At Kabah, Nancy and I ate a picnic lunch in the shadow of a tenth century arch that marked the beginning of the stone road that led to Uxmal 30 kilometers away. We gazed down the raised causeway that ended abruptly at the forest edge, where archeologists had stopped their work. What an impressive entrance to a city—it must have been like entering Oz. [The arch pictured is the one at nearby Labna.]

At all of these sites, stone carvings of Chac, the rain god, are in abundance. Since rain is the only source of water in this area, it is not surprising to find this god in such prominence. The Mayans built large cisterns to collect and hold rain water to see them through the dry season.

At the eastern end of the Ruta Puuc are the caves of Loltun. On the hour-long tour we saw huge caverns with many stalagmites and stalactites. The cave, used for millennia, has the outline of prehistoric hands similar to those in caves in France. Mammoth bones have been found in the Loltun cave, as well as human bones.

That night we were tired and missed the big celebration in front of the Santa Elena church (built at the top of what look like steps of a Mayan temple). Plenty of firecrackers went off during the night, though, so we didn’t entirely miss the party. The next morning as we walked around town we saw Mexican teenagers sleeping outside the public buildings, kids who had run or bicycled for days from other villages, carrying a torch to fulfill their pledge to the Virgin.

We stopped at a traditional Mayan home with palm fronds for a roof. A man came from the side of the house and told us that he teaches Mayan. Every year groups of students arrive from the States to learn the language which is spoken throughout the area and is still the first language of the town residents, Spanish being the second. We learned from our B&B host that Martha Steward filmed Don Feliciano and his wife last month as they taught her about Mayan cooking with traditional herbs from their garden.