For us, last year marked a return to (a new) normal, after the COVID pandemic and after my mother’s illness and death in 2022. I am back in the office on a pretty regular basis, and we were able to travel without public health-related restrictions. Although COVID is not “over,” it has become integrated and more normalized. People call in sick for the flu or COVID. I had a cold in late October, and just did a couple of COVID home tests (negative) to inform my management of the illness. Other than a cold, we were all in pretty good health this year, and we are grateful for that.

However, both Laura and I had a bumpy start for 2022 in that regard. On Jan. 2, I went for a run in the neighborhood and encountered a dog who had gotten away from his owner. When I tried to help the owner catch the dog, the dog bit me in my left hand. I got stitched up at Urgent Care, and was fine. Just a week later, on Jan. 10, Laura’s horse bucked her off during a canter in Hill Forest. Laura fell off backwards, but managed to roll on the gravel road. She did hit her head and may have briefly lost consciousness. Julia was with her and called the emergency dispatch, who sent an ambulance their way. Julia also informed me, and I rushed out there, too. Laura was able to walk to the road where the EMT examined her and decided to take her to the hospital. So the ambulance took Laura to Duke Regional hospital, and I arrived as they were leaving, and Julia and I took the horses back home. Then I went to the hospital to check on Laura. A few hours later, she was discharged from the hospital with some pain meds. The only damage from one of her worst riding accident in all these years was a mild concussion and some bruising. We are very grateful for that!

Her horse’s reaction was also very remarkable. Madison was clearly confused by what had happened, and had had no intention of bucking Laura off. When Laura was on the ground, Madison came right over to her to check on her. And when she saw Laura for the first time the next day out in the pasture, Madison whinnied and ran up to Laura to greet her – apparently relieved to see her. Both horses are very bonded to Laura and see her as the “lead mare” in the group. They would never intentionally harm her, but sometimes they do unexpected things that can be dangerous to the rider. Lessons were learned.

Speaking of horses … the highlight of the year for Laura and me was our trip to Iceland in August/Sept. We spent 2 weeks in Iceland, and did 6-day horse tour on the Snaefellsness peninsula. The tour was amazing, and we really got to experience the stamina and character of the Icelandic horses. It was a wild ride in terms of weather conditions, with sunshine, fog, rain, and hail; including spectacular sunrises and hurricane force winds that were pushing the waterfalls back up onto the mountain.

Before our horse adventure, we spent a few days in Reykjavik with my dad and his partner. We explored some lava tunnels and fumerols in the area, and on the third day we went to Þingvellir – the rift valley north of Reykjavik that is also the historic site of the Icelandic Alþingi (parliament). It is now a National Park and one of the most popular and iconic destinations in Iceland. The next day the Germans got ready for the trip back home, and Laura and I went on a whale watching tour in the morning. Even though we did not see any whales, it was amazing to see the coastline of Reykjavik and the Reykjanes bay from the water. In the afternoon, the bus picked us up and drove us to the Snaefellsness for the riding tour.

A week later, the bus dropped us off, again, and we picked up a rental car and drove to Landeyjahöfn to catch the ferry to Heimaey on Vestmannaeyjar. We spent the next day exploring this volcanic island off the southern coast of Iceland. We visited the puffin colony, where the puffins were just getting ready for their winter migration into the North Atlantic. In the afternoon, we climbed on top of Eldfell volcano and visited the Elheimar Museum, where we learned about the 1973 Eldfell eruption.

The next morning we even got a chance to help rescue a baby puffin that had gotten lost in town. We put the bird in a box and had it checked out by an expert. Once we got the “OK” to release the bird, we took him to a cliff on the western side of the island and Laura threw him off the cliff! The little guy spread its wings and flew off to join the flock of young birds that were gathering in the ocean. After this interesting experience., we went back into town, to explore the harbor area and visit the beluga sanctuary, before taking the afternoon ferry back to the mainland. The next couple of days we explored the southern coast a bit more, before it was time to return the car and catch our flight back home.

Julia’s big adventure last year was her 6-week trip to Ghana and Togo. March 15 she flew to Accra (after a 1-day delay due to winter weather), and she stayed with Agbessi and Sandra until April 25. It was her first international solo trip, but she did stay with her Ghanaian “uncle” and “auntie” ? Still, it was challenging for her. Getting used to the African vibe, the climate and the food – at times this experience put her way out of her comfort zone. Yet, she hung in there and dealt with it – with help (thanks Agbessi and Sandra!), but she still had to process it al herself. And she did strike out on her own, and traveled to the coast on her own. Agbessi also took her on a trip to Togo to the village where Laura and I had met all these years ago, and where she had visited with us and Jacob in 2009. She received a very warm welcome there, and got a chance to really experience unfiltered Yikpato hospitality herself. Maybe the next generation will keep this connection alive – who knows?

Julia’s other adventure last year was (and still is) her new job as an Americorps volunteer for Durham Habitat for Humanity. She started her job while Laura and I were in Iceland. Her friend Cloe stayed with her and helped her around the house, so she was not totally on her own. Julia is working for HfH as a volunteer coordinator, and so far she likes the work, even though she has to get up early and work on Saturdays (But she has Sundays and Mondays off).

Among other fun things we did last year were three concerts Laura and I saw; in April we saw Postmodern Jukebox in Greensboro, in September we saw Fatoumata Diawara in Raleigh and in October we saw my favorite jazz artist of all time – Hiromi Uehara – also in Raleigh. This was one of only 4 concerts on the US East coast of her Sonicwonderland tour! Julia and I went to Duke Chapel in October to watch the original silent movie “Phantom of the Opera” accompanied with live organ music, played by Peter Richard Conte on the Aeolian organ at Duke Chapel.

On a rather different end of the spectrum of things to do, was my experience in June, when I spent a week at a Theravada Buddhist monastery, located in the mountains in Virginia. I was invited to stay June 17-24 at Forest Dhamma Monastery near Lexington Virginia. One of the monks from the monastery was visiting the temple I attend here in Durham a few weeks prior, and he invited me to come and visit the monastery. It was a great experience – more relaxed than a retreat, but also a bit more work. The morning we were very busy preparing the meal for the monastics and doing various jobs after the meal. But the afternoon was totally free, and I was just by myself in my kuti (a small hut) in the forest, about a 10 minute hike up the mountain from the main building.

So the afternoon is spent in a very calm, secluded place, both physically and mentally. One may sit and meditate on one’s meditation object or just contemplate life and absorb the peace of the forest. Each kuti also has a meditation path, and I did make good use of the one at the kuti where I was staying. There was also quite the wildlife to observe: I saw plenty of deer, of course, and the ubiquitous squirrels, various raptors, vultures and a pair of woodpeckers, an opossum, box turtles and various lizards. I watched a hawk hunt from a tree next to my kuti, catch a mouse (or shrew) and eat it right there on its perch. I also watched a momma bear with 2 cubs come right by my place twice as close as maybe 150 feet/50 m. And one morning one of the monks and I had to chase a bear away who was trying to figure out how to get into the kitchen.

But there was also quite a bit of work to be done around the monastery. There was the daily food prep and cooking, as well as the post-meal cleanup. After the meal, there were chores, like cleaning one of the kutis, unclogging a wastewater drainage pipe (which led me to suggest installing a grease trap in the kitchen) and digging trenches for improved rain water drainage. One of the more fun tasks I did was drive one of the monks into town, because he had to go see a doctor to get a moth removed from his ear canal. The moth got confused by his flashlight. flew into his ear and got stuck. He could not get it out, so he need professional help. A PA flushed it out with some hydrogen peroxide, and all was good (except for the moth, of course).

The meal ceremony itself is a rather involved affair, as the food has to be carried from the kitchen to the main building – quickly and efficiently so it stays warm, and does not get rained on. It has to timed accurately, so it is ready when the monastics return from their alms-round. It has to be set up in the right order, so it can be offered to the monastics, and they can then efficiently take their share and pass it down the line, as they are seated in the hall. They will then pass the food back to the lay people, who will then take a plate of food from the monastic’s left-overs and eat their meal. I also learned that once the abbot finishes his meal, the junior monastics also have to stop eating, and the lay folks are also supposed to stop eating. So in this tradition, the emphasis is not on “mindful eating” but rather on efficient eating.

At the end of this very interesting week, I ended up with a little adventure that did not quite go as planned. One of the monks was leaving to spend the summer in the Appalachian trail, and so all the monastics were planning on a day trip to the place an hour north of the monastery, and they invited me to come along. I gladly accepted the invitation, and I was just going to drive home from there. One of the monks decided to ride with me, and we followed the van. However, after about 45 minutes of mountain driving, I noticed that my car’s engine was starting to overheat, so I pulled over at a auto parts store to check on that. I saw the coolant was really low, so I bought some more to top it off. As I was pouring in the coolant, I noticed that it was coming right back out below the car! And sure enough, one of the hoses was leaking badly. In a 30-year-old engine it’s pretty common that plastic and rubber parts get brittle and fail. So I purchased a piece of replacement hose and got to work removing the busted one. As I was pulling off the hose from the auxiliary water pump, the plastic connector broke off the pump! It was game over. Of course the store did not have an auxiliary water pump for a 1992 Mercedes in stock.

So the monk called the abbot and asked him to arrange for someone to come and pick him up, and I had to call Laura and ask her to rent a car trailer and come and pick me and the busted car up in Dublin, Virginia – a 3-hour drive from Durham. About 45 minutes later, his ride arrived, and I bid farewell to my travel companion. Five hours later, Laura arrived, and we loaded the car onto the trailer and drove back home.

While I was gone in the mountains, Laura had to make some tough decisions at home. One of our bee hives had become extremely aggressive. The bees were chasing her all the way to the house and attacking the horses and other animals. Aggressive bees are a known problem, and beekeepers have to take drastic measures to deal with this problem in order to avoid these genes from spreading. So Laura had to deal with this problem without my help, which was unfortunate.

A few weeks later, in early July, Laura finally gt to attend her mushroom foraging safety class at Mushroom Mountain in South Carolina. She seemed to have fun getting her safety certification and learning the nitty-gritty about selling foraged mushrooms. She is now a certified mushroom forager and can legally sell foraged mushrooms in five US states.

Last, but not least, Jacob is still working for Freudenberg here in Durham. He now has a dog – a very energetic Husky called “Sashimi” whom he adopted in late 2022. Apparently he also has big plans to go camping in the new year, since he asked for camping equipment for his birthday and Christmas. But first he will have to get his car fixed. Late last year, he had an accident with a deer, which caused some damage to the front bumper and the driver side head light. The deer did not survive the accident. Let’s hope this will be Jacob’s last car accident! The deer are a real problem around here, in terms of traffic safety.

That’s all I can think of for 2023. Let’s hope for the best for all for 2024.

Peace – out!

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