Tag Archives: Nepal

The Masons

August 3, 2015 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

This article appears in August 2015 Her Family.

It seems like the stereotypically idyllic life of a poet: a gravel path leading to a house in the woods, one that calls to mind Walden Pond and literary greats such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Poet Matt Mason and his wife, poet Sarah McKinstry-Brown, share that home with daughters Sophia Mason, 11, Lucia Mason, 7, and rescue dog Max. Their lives are as busy and hectic as those of any other working parents—even if they do revolve around words and the constant effort to construct them into something profound and beautiful.

“Being two poets seems like this really romantic existence,” explains McKinstry-Brown, “but it’s a lot of hard work and love, sweat, tears, and making time for the kids. Sometimes I wish people would have more of an understanding of how hard it is.”

The couple’s professional achievements speak to exactly how hard, especially in terms of how hard each poet works. Mason, 46, is executive director of the Nebraska Writers Collective. He won a Pushcart Prize and served as a cultural envoy for the U.S. State Department to Botswana, Nepal, and Belarus. McKinstry-Brown, 38, leads literary workshops and garnered the Academy of American Poets Prize as well as a Blue Light Book Award for her full-length collection of poetry, Cradling Monsoons. Each has received Nebraska Books Awards, and they are influential members of Omaha’s flourishing poetry slam scene, a scene that Mason was instrumental in creating.

The poets met in 2002, when McKinstry-Brown appeared at a poetry slam in Omaha. “I announced on stage that it was my birthday, and Matt ordered me a piece of cheesecake,” the mother of two remembers. “It was carrot cake,” Mason interjects. “No, it was cheesecake,” responds McKinstry-Brown. “Carrot cake,” insists Mason.

While poetry drew Mason and McKinstry-Brown together, Sophia and Lucia, who both attend St. Philip Neri Catholic School, remain nonplussed about what their father and mother do for a living. When asked what they think about their parents’ jobs, they shrug their shoulders.

“It’s funny,” remarks McKinstry-Brown. “It makes you realize how much your idea of normal is and how it’s shaped. Sophia’s asked a few times if everyone has a photograph on the back of a book. They’ve grown up going to a lot of readings. It’s their normal, and they’re very blasé about it.”

Indeed, rather than talk about their parents, the sisters are focused on Max’s affectionate antics and the next door neighbor’s puppy, which is staring plaintively into the living room window hoping to gain entry. “Don’t let the puppy in—we’ll never get rid of him!” exclaims McKinstry-Brown. The girls exchange mischievous glances as if trying to figure out how to get around this order without getting into trouble.

Each girl has a personality that mirrors one parent. Sophia, who sports a pixie cut and wears a t-shirt and shorts, is serious and introspective like her father. A Minecraft enthusiast, she loves the different worlds she can build. “There are so many things in it,” Sophia explains. “You can build absolutely anything. You can build a castle. I’ve gone really far.”

Lucia, despite being laid low with a cough, is outgoing like her mother and sprawls comfortably across the floor in a white sparkly dress. She loves to cook and is competitive with her sister in developing recipes. “Sophia likes gross stuff,” she observes with an impish grin before rattling off some of the ingredients for one of her sandwiches. “It had bread, yogurt, and chocolate sauce,” she recounts.

Even so, what Mason and McKinstry-Brown do for a living has influenced their daughters. At a young age, the sisters set up poetry slams, performing to audiences of stuffed animals seated around the living room couch. Sophia is interested in writing a children’s book with her mother titled Max at the Window, which would imagine the family pet’s fanciful daydreams while the the girls are at school. “I was thinking that for ‘about the author’ we should put something about Max and put glasses on him for his photo,” she suggests.

While the girls may not always be aware of the challenges facing full-time poets, Mason is keenly so, indicating they’ve just returned from Disneyland. “It was our first real family vacation,” he says. “You look at how everyone lives very different lives from us, and there is a certain attraction to that.”

“Like everyone else, it’s figuring out what’s sustainable,” McKinstry-Brown adds. “It’s more challenging because of the path we’ve chosen. The girls have given us so much of our art and how we see the world. They have given us so much insight. I’m really, really proud of us.”

Masons1

World traveler, historic preserver

July 9, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in July/August 2015 Sixty-Plus.

Susan Bray has never been one to shy away from attention. She built her life around standing out.

As a blonde, long-haired “hippie chick” in the 1970s, Bray stood out in some Asian and Middle-Eastern countries that had never welcomed a white woman traveling solo.

Her adventures started after she left Nebraska and moved to Honolulu to live with her brother after college. A few years later, Bray married a physicist. They eventually relocated to Guam—“the hottest place on God’s green earth,” according to Bray. And she would know.

The travel bug bit hard soon after the couple divorced. She’s visited more than 50 countries in her 70 years of life. Most of her 50 countries came in a span of five years during three different trips.

She saw the cage in Titian where she believes Amelia Earhart was held captive by the Japanese until her death. She was goosed by a camel in Afghanistan. And she was horned in the rear by a water buffalo in Nepal.

Bray most recalls the kindness of the people in Nepal. It’s her favorite country. While there, she rented a motorcycle and headed toward Mount Everest—at least, until it broke down. She says, “It wasn’t a Harley, I’ll tell you.” But even out in the remote rice paddies, she quickly found help.

She went to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It is the second most beautiful work of architecture she’s ever seen. The most stunning edifice Bray saw was the Golden Pagoda in Burma (now Myanmar). “It was like eight to 10 stories high, and it had a spiral staircase like the Guggenheim.” In an excited whisper, she then adds, “It was all plated gold. Just startling when you see it.”

Traveling cost a lot. She came home to her mother in Omaha in 1976 with about 45 cents to her name. Thankfully, pay phones only cost a dime at the time.

Subconsciously, Bray may have been studying art and architecture all over the world because she knew that’s where her heart was. Her passion led her to city planning in Omaha, which evolved into
historic preservation.

Soon she grew restless and weary of Midwestern winters. Bray bought a house in Hawaii and lived there until her mother became ill. To be closer to her, she moved to La Jolla, Calif.

SusanBray2

Quickly getting involved in historic preservation once again, “I ended up being in charge of the restoration of downtown San Diego,” Bray says. “I did an area called the Gaslamp Quarter. It was all old buildings I did…96 of them.”

In her living room is a newspaper clipping from the San Diego Tribune, the headline of which reads, “Gunslinger of the Gaslamp: Susan Bray is the guardian of downtown’s historical integrity—like her or not.”

She looks at the photo in the clipping and says, “The guys working on this building gave me a pink construction hat. So cute.”

Reflecting on Gaslamp, Bray says, “That’s my biggest contribution. I changed the footprint of a city. And that’s forever.”

Bray thinks a lot about legacies because she’s been diagnosed with a rare degenerative brain disease similar to Lou Gehrig’s called Orthostatic Hypotension. It’s terminal. This news came after she already survived lymphoma and breast cancer.

Her doctor in California recommended that she live near her burial site. So, six years ago, she threw all her photos, a small red chair, and a blue stool in her car to come back to Omaha.

Although she always appreciated the sense of community here, she felt sad to find so many of her good friends had already passed away or moved. She’s grateful for the new friends she has made and some friends from Westide High School she’s reconnected with.

Bray does not know the meaning of the term stranger. “I dialed the wrong number the other night in San Diego, and I ended up talking to a 79-year-old woman for an hour,” she says.

Even sales calls get a taste of her gusto. “My daily joy is making people laugh,” she says. “I think that’s why God put me on this earth.”

So even though Bray has to “fill a bathtub to feel at home” so far from the ocean, she’s made a home again in Omaha. Inside her apartment, Bray’s parakeet, Big Boy, sings in the background. Combine that with the vintage blond art deco floors—“I would only ever live in a historic property”—it could almost be a tropical getaway.

SusanBray1

On Top of the World

February 19, 2015 by
Photography by Beverly Kracher, Ph.D.

Bhima, our guide, waited for us on the trail. We caught up to her after stopping to adjust our daypacks and enjoying some wild berries. Under her umbrella, which protected her from the burning sun, we could see Bhima’s smiling face and playful eyes. She quickly evaluated our moods and stamina. She said to us, for probably the 30th time, “Not far to go before we get to the next tea house. A little bit up, a little bit down.”

Bhima was coaching us. Though it was probably another hour before we reached our stopping point, she was saying the thing we needed to hear to make it.

“A little bit up, a little bit down.” Those words have had a forceful affect on my life since returning from this year’s trek. I was in the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal. Hikers have tried to describe the magnificence of this massive range—the raw beauty, the incredible scenery, the water buffalo, and the orange/yellow sunsets over the snowcapped mountains.

Try as we might, it is impossible. You have to go there on your own to know what Nirvana is like.

This was my second trek. The first was so powerful that I knew I had to come back with my sister. Barb and I had poured over books about the yogis and sadhus in India and Nepal when we were kids. We were inspired by their quest for spiritual enlightenment in the Himalayas. So this time I was with Barb. Her husband, Joel, came with us because he loves to explore life, too.

We hired 3Sisters Adventure Trekking Company for our trek. Three Nepalese sisters own the company and provide jobs to Nepalese women by hiring and training them as guides and porters. Walking through the majestic mountains with four Nepalese women (one guide and three porters) brought the heavens to earth. As we walked, we learned about their quest for opportunity, education, family, and freedom. I found, as I always do when I travel, that while people dress differently and have different customs, we basically desire the same things. In this, we are one race.

While trekking, Bhima showed us the way yogis and sadhus walk. The technique is two-fold. First, they take it easy. They are the tortoises not the hare. Second, they use a lower-body relaxation technique. As they hike up a mountain they rest their back leg as they push off with their front leg. Continuous movement creates stress, so relaxing the back leg, even for a second, reduces tension and increases power. In these two ways, Bhima taught us to pace ourselves and to use our legs in a way that would allow us to walk twelve hours a day.

A little bit up, a little bit down.

Since my return I have learned to pace my life just as I paced my steps up the steepest and longest trails I have ever encountered. The temptation was great to fall back into my hectic work life.

When I think about this it’s like listening to a sad song.

The beauty of the Himalayas are still with me. I can very easily feel the peace anytime I try. I know that is good for my heart. And there is one more thing. I carry a joyful, even enlightened, attitude where I see the ebb and flow of life as “a little bit up, a little bit down.”

I can be my best and do my best. And that attitude makes me feel like I’m standing on top of the world.

DSC_0104