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Incredible Journeys

As children's author Whitney Stewart sees it, the most important place a kid can go is to the 'mind place.'



For local children's author Whitney Stewart, there is a name for those meditative adventures when the body is motionless and the mind is tranquil. She calls them "mind places." And Stewart, who has spent much of her life journeying to destinations such as the Himalayas, Burma and Dharamsala, India, believes such traveling is just as important.

Stewart introduced the idea of mind places in her recent book Jammin' on the Avenue, in which young guitarist Eric Wieman comes to New Orleans for a guitar competition. Stewart continues the character -- and his mind places -- in her recently published book, Blues Across the Bay. The young musician has now been awarded a scholarship to the Quick Finger Guitar Camp of San Francisco. He travels from his New England home to the California coast -- but it's only when he visits his mind places that he sorts out some of life's puzzles.

"I believe in order to find happiness in life, you need to slow down and pay attention to small moments of life," says Stewart. "For me, paying attention, anybody can do it, of any age, of any religious affiliation, and I think people are happier when they do it. Therefore, for me it's a recipe for happiness."

Yet Stewart doesn't shy away from physical travel, either. Rather than rely on written research for her biographies of Sir Edmund Hillary and the 14th Dalai Lama (both books are geared to pre-teen readers), she sought out first-hand experience. In the case of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, she first secured an interview with him and then traveled to Dharamsala, India. For Stewart, a practicing Buddhist, the meeting produced some anxious moments.

"I was very nervous and I had been taught how to prostrate all the way down to the floor by some monks the night before," she recalls. "But I was carrying a tape recorder, a notebook, a present, and a white scarf that you offer to the Dalai Lama when you meet him. And I was panicked because I didn't know what to do with all those things while I got down on the floor and prostrated. But he was obviously quite aware of this kind of conflict in Westerners and he immediately stuck out his hand to shake my hand, so that comforted me right away."

After she completed that first book -- and with her interest in the Far East and in particular the Himalayan region still not sated -- Stewart next turned to the story of Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tenzing Norgay was the first man to scale Mount Everest. After a favorable first interview with Hillary, Stewart received an invitation to spend a month trekking with him through the mountainous region of Nepal, home of the Himalayas and Everest.

This was an annual trip for Hillary, who since scaling Everest in 1953 had been concerned with the Sherpa people of Nepal. "He was visiting all the various schools and people and bringing them funds," Stewart says. "Every year, the head of the Sherpa groups would come to him and make an appeal and say we need a new roof on this school or another medical clinic. He would listen to all the different things and decide what was the most important.

"To accomplish this, Hillary, who was 71 at the time, would trek from one Himalayan village to the next. We started at 9,000 feet elevation and hiked as far as 14,500 feet on some occasions. Dysentery and all."

Stewart's research for her new book was less physically strenuous -- she attended band practices and visited San Francisco -- but her work still retains a keen eye for details. Yes, the novel includes many of the mainstays of travel to San Francisco (Alcatraz Island, Fisherman's Wharf, Haight Ashbury), but Stewart also manages to fit in some of the city's peculiarities such as a pagoda-like building in Chinatown made of yellow brick, dark red roofing tiles, and the name "McDonald's" written in Chinese and English. And even when it is apparent that Eric is succeeding at the school and finding a master teacher, he still takes the time to reflect on the people in his life. As he walks through the Grace Cathedral labyrinth, Eric contemplates, "I sensed something unseen around me, but I really didn't know what it was ... the invisible something that felt like friendship." For Eric -- and Stewart -- life has to be examined, not just walked through.

"It's more than that," adds Stewart. "It's following your own dream and while you're doing that, and as you're accomplishing it, that you're paying attention to the other people who are helping you. And you give back."


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