Kindnesses

I spent last month in Thailand, fulfilling a lifelong dream of being close to elephants. ImageThe trip was about re-finding what is really important in life, and about new beginnings. It came at the heels of a number of job experiences that left me completely wondering where the sanity of this world is – because it certainly wasn’t in my recent work situation. My whole life I have felt it was important to do work that improved the world, helped to protect the environment, or helped animals in some way. How to do that exactly is open to interpretation. But given recent experiences, I have to admit that I had become disillusioned about my ability to make a difference in the world today.  Recently It all seemed futile and pointless, and I wondered if it was even worth trying anymore.

So I decided to take a trip to the other side of this great planet we live on, and see other ways of living. My major goal was to go volunteer with and be close to elephants, and so I ended up at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There  I met Lek Chailert, the founder of ENP. She was generous enough to let me tag along as she spent time with her elephant friends. What a thrill!Image Watching Lek know just how to delight a first time visitor,  to care for her elephant friends in any number of ways – nuzzling with an uncertain baby elephant, singing to a grown one who’s trust she had gained,Image

or watching her speak to a crowd of people with just the right blend of humility, knowledge and integrity in order to educate and help people remember why we were put on this earth – to live in cooperation with the natural world that nourishes us every day,  to be kind to those weaker than us, to heal those who are broken of spirit and body, these are just a few ideas worth emulating.Image

I heard it said while I was there, and later noticed a saying inscribed over one of the lecture rooms that read “The Power of One”. This was a powerful idea and I thought about it while I was there.  I was familiar with the thought that a few concerned people gathered together can change the world (via Margaret Mead) or the Bible’s “when two or more are gathered in my name” but really in my experience it is sometimes impossible to find even one more person who is committed to the uplifting and healing of the planet and to our true role as human beings and caretakers of the planet. But as I watch Lek in action,  and her handling of everyday people and elephants, I think of how we really all are in need of healing, whether we are animals or humans. Isn’t the pain we as a species wreak upon other species and the earth herself often a reflection of the wounds and unhealed places inside each person or  their race or species as a whole? I believe part of helping animals is helping people find a place of peace inside themselves, however that is often much harder to do with a person than with animals, who will return to that centered place just by removing the basic needs’ barriers like pain and hunger.

The park is home to about 35 elephants. It is maxed out right  now until they can afford to purchase more land next door, which has doubled in price once the owner found out that Lek wanted it for her elephant friends. It also houses a joyous raucous 400+ dogs which have been rescued over the last few years from places like the flooded streets of Bangkok and the illegal dog meat trade – ugh! These dogs have spacious quarters and all their food and medical needs taken care of by the Park and its volunteers. Most of these dogs are ready for adoption and if you are ever in Thailand and want a companion dog – check out Elephant Nature Park!

There is so much to say about my time there that I can’t possibly fit it all in one blog post. But what I will start with is that the theme of traveling for me was Kindness. The one thing that got me through each rough patch I was in (like getting lost – twice! on the streets of Bangkok – scary!) and the one thing I saw in Lek that impressed me the most – was the power of  certain kindnesses, often from total strangers, sometimes from old friends.
During one of the rare moments I was lucky enough to be alone with Lek and the elephants, I asked her – what is the one most important thing you’d want me to write about in my blog when I get back home? She talked about (and I couldn’t record an exact quote because we were standing in a river throwing water on elephant’s backs to help them bathe at the time) Image

that all animals, not even just elephants, deserve a life free of cruelty and full of kindness. She described what I would call a Basic Bill of Rights for All Animals. All animals need to be treated with kindness and decency, to have good living conditions including things like clean water, nourishing food, room to exercise and to express yourself naturally. This seems like such a simple truth but one that obviously still needs to be stated and promoted until there really exists a Basic Bill of Rights for All Living Beings. I believe it can be so, especially as more people become aware of what goes into that chicken in your Buffalo Wings.

I would imagine that this is why all the delicious food at the ENP is vegetarian. Because supporting the meat industry today by buying meat or chicken or pork in a supermarket or restaurant automatically means you are supporting extreme animal cruelty. And is that really where you want to put your dollars, your vote for the industry to keep doing what they‘ve been doing? Every purchase you make supports what you are buying. Why not support kindness instead of extreme cruelty? There are many videos out there that will show you exactly the inhumane conditions in meat factories and poultry farms, watch them if you need proof. But if you don’t need proof, start voting now with your $’s for what you believe in.

The entire Elephant Nature Park and Save Elephants Foundation was built on one person’s idea of the power of kindness. That these elephants whom no one cared about are now living lives free of abuse, able to socialize as they wish, where they get to be, well, elephants, and it all came about because one person had the kind thought that every species whether they be human or animal, each deserved a decent life free of abuse where they are able to live out their lives in peaceful existence – and isn’t that what we all want?

Check out ENP at http://www.saveelephant.orgImage

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Choices

As I prepare for my journey around the world, again, this time to Thailand to volunteer at an elephant rescue place, I reflect on why I am going.

Because it feels good to do so.

Is that such a foreign idea to most people? Is it just New Jerseyans?  I don’t think so. When I stopped at the bank yesterday to withdraw money, somehow I mentioned to the teller/manager at this tiny adjunct bank in a supermarket),that I was going to need this money because I’d had some hard knocks recently The look in her eyes changed immediately, and I suppose expecting I would sympathize, she began to tell me the long story of her life, a tale of struggles and past triumph, but always coming back to the present – now – the one where she hated her job and was completely miserable. I began to wonder why anyone would continue in a situation where they were so clearly miserable. So I asked her – “what are your choices here?” She stopped and looked at me in confusion. Why wasn’t I feeling sorry for her? Where were the pity phrases we utter automatically, condolences for her losing her vice presidential position that landed her here, in a job that paid her a quarter of what she had been making.  Didn’t I understand that she had no choice?

“We all have a choice” I found myself saying. She kept staring at me as if I was holding up the bank about to ask her to empty the safe. “If you are so miserable, why not make a change?” I said. This is particularly telling to me because I have been that woman at other times in my life, and I’m not going back. Not going to put energy into justifying my misery anymore. You can all hold me to this! As soon as I realize I’m doing it, I’m making a new choice – to what feels good now. This has been a lifelong endeavor, and so it’s particularly painful to see others still caught in the sticky grasp of  this demon.

Well, this woman was not going to give me my money until I commented on how awful her life was. I felt sorry for her, but mostly I felt repulsed about having to hear her insist she was a victim of life. Not because of her situation – I’ve been there myself too many times, but because of her disbelief in the idea that she had a choice, that she could make a new choice and create a better life- one where she loved it. In reality, the repulsion and how it bothered me after I finally left her window was from the recognition that I have made the choice to be like her at times, and how deeply painful – like self inflicted torture- it was. I reminded myself to let this serve as a cautionary tale for me, to send good wishes of change for the better her way, and to be grateful for once again returning from the dark side of pessimism to the joy of finding my bliss and leading it forward into a new life that feels good.

What really made me notice this dynamic was that this same scenario had been played out earlier at a swim class I had been a part of that morning. One of the students had monopolized the instructor’s ear with unrelated complaining chatter for most of the 45 minute class. It was my first class and I could have used more of the attention of the instructor, who granted, did an admirable job of throwing some instruction my way, in-between polite listening to this housewife brewing over storms in her teacup. Near the end of our time, I mentioned that I wouldn’t be attending soon because I would be away for awhile.

“Where? “ they inquired.

“Thailand, to volunteer at an elephant rescue facility.  I’ve always loved elephants and I’m really excited about this opportunity to be close to them and learn more about their life and their world”

The chatty woman who had spent the class intent on describing every problem in her life in detail, glared at me. “Boy I wish I could do that.” She seemed more angry with me, than happy for me.  I said “You could go.”  She did a double take and whirled on me, immediately listing all the reasons why she most certainly couldn’t go. I said, “Well, it is a choice. We all make choices and all these choices have effects on our lives. “

There’s nothing wrong with deciding to stay at home and be a mom and a wife in New Jersey, but it is such a downer when people start railing on how “lucky” you are when, in actuality, you made a choice and then another, and more choices,  because these choices are the most life giving, joy filled, exciting and eager-to-get-up-in-the-morning-for-things you could possibly create at this moment in time. I don’t want to be stuck justifying my choices to anyone, I want to be free to live, to enjoy, to find my passions and live them fully down to the very last day I have on this earth. There is a saying going around on the internet about rather than carefully creeping up to one’s old age, another choice is to come careening in, holding a spilled beer in one hand, and a winning hand of poker in the other, while cursing up a storm and laughing hysterically, with a bunch of friends at your side.  Somehow I like the latter image, returning to my Tomboy roots as I age, being like Idgie in Fried Green Tomatoes, aged in her 80’s selling honey at a warm southern hospitality roadside stand with her compatriots. And of course the honey is from the wildest of bees, which she still hand gathers on misty mornings, using her special bee-charming ways.  All in a place where wild bees still thrive and fulfill their place in Nature.  Although I did give up cursing on all except the worst of days quite awhile ago, I do like the image of a winning poker hand – implying that I am finally winning at this game we call life.

Yes, it really is all about choices. I am choosing to do what feels good and I’ve been doing it for awhile. I don’t always get it right, but that’s ok because as soon as you make one choice, if that was a mistake, there are 20 more choices waiting for your attentions. If I can only make the smallest increment that day toward feeling better, I take it. And if I can make a super leap into the trip of a lifetime, and it feels good to do so, then I do it. After that first decision, more choices come up at almost every moment to decide again to do what feels good.  I’ll keep making those decisions toward moving in the direction of my happinesses, making more real friends and finding freedom of spirit, for a start.

You can too.

lek with trunks

This is a picture of Lek Chailert, the founder of Elephant Nature Park in Thailand. Life can feel good while we are doing what we love! Make a choice to support her work  at www.elephantnaturepark.org