Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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Breathing Room

A Persian Myth tells we’re born as camels with great burdens placed on our backs. The first third of our lives we must carry the bearings of our ancestors: beliefs, customs, aspirations and aberrations. Our souls are thus imprinted with culture.

As a child, I loved Sunday mass: solemn statue saints resonating pure lived lives, hymns on which to soar to high realms, tales of Jesus healing the blind and lame, saying we can do the same. His parables wove wisdom through my soul. My heart ascended with the true, good and beautiful.

When the priest pronounced, “Go now in peace,” bowed heads lifted. Purses and keys grasped, the masses pressed through the aisles towards their cars. Sharply, like a pierced balloon, my soul deflated. In a daze, my eyes fastened to my dad’s head bobbing through a sea of bonnets and hairdos to navigate my way to our Cadillac. As I gazed out the backseat window at parishioners vying for exit from the black asphalt parking lot, I pined for engagement with living truths like a plant pursuing light. Soon condominiums blocked the steeple’s ascent and I closed my eyes to gather the lingering glow within.

Once home, I slid off my patent leather shoes and fancy laced dress. Sitting with my family to ham and cheese sandwiches and store bought macaroni and potato salad, I was eager to have put dishes in the washer and wiped down the table. Finally, I could slip between pink azaleas and the cool concrete wall of my house to sit cloistered in a circle of Japanese yew. Beneath a canopy of dogwood, streams of insight like soaring organ arpeggios sculpted my soul as Heaven serenaded me. Legs moist with dirt and browning leaves, I sat in communion.

Every Saturday morning, catechism was a dark, stifling edifice in which I was brought to dwell. Strict definitions tacked down contours of the Divine, prescribing proper intercession, enumerating forbidden transgressions. My friend, John, memorized 60 such depictions in preparation for confirmation. The bishop, clothed in crimson regalia, strode past him and fellow eighth graders, frozen in line, to ask the questions. “What is a sacrament?” the bishop prodded Jennifer, shaking in her white Mary Janes. “An outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace,” she spurted, proud to have remembered word for word. The bishop nodded and walked away. John, stunned, holding back signs of disbelief muttered “Was that it? I memorized all those definitions for that?” It was then he told me he started to turn from the church.

Served up lifeless imperatives, our souls run on empty.

School, too, retained me in barren barracks. I took refuge in the occasional sculpting of clay renderings of the Acropolis. Filling in bubbles after finding the main idea dulled my mind. Searching for details of assigned passages in SRA kits was a closet from which I sought escape for air. Lining up on pungent waxed floors in dingy green hallways, my sinews clenched. Until at last, heavy metal doors were unbolted and my limbs could extend on the sundrenched clover fields of the school yard.

A trip to Garvies Point in fifth grade still lives in my soul. Groomed amongst sharply pruned shrubs and glossy polished surfaces, I stared wide-eyed and dreamy at simple scenes of natural living. Wooden dioramas displaying sun baked women weaving grass and bare footed children gathering acorns filled me with delight. I studied each gesture and object in my mind’s eye as I stared out the bus window at Shop Rite and Burger King on the ride back to our classroom. A window had cracked to a world long vanquished.

According to Persian myth, the second third of our lives, we become conscious of our load. We are now the lion who must eat the camel – taking what we choose, casting off what we reject.

As an Environmental Economics student at NYU, I ventured with my Botany class to New Jersey wetlands. This was a much awaited break from steamy subway grids and grimy black sidewalks. As I stepped off the metal bus to grassy fields of trees piercing blue, my sinuses unblocked and lungs expanded. The soles of my sneakers sinking into supple earth, I trailed with classmates as Professor Stein pointed and named, “Morella Pennsylvania”, “Quercus Stellata”. I glanced past her narrative to watch a butterfly flitting through cornflowers. Gathered under an oak, notebooks and pencils in hand, we sketched and jotted terms for parts of a leaf she upheld: “petiole”, “sinus”, “lobe”. My heart sinking, I leaned into the flanking, grey bark of a nearby oak, inhaling its musky scent. Drawing my attention to its firm hold of earth and soaring to sky, I took refuge, vowing not to take another science class.

Once conquerors of the natural world, we now live severed from creation.

My friend Darian grew up in Iran. He and his family fled the Iranian Revolution when he was a boy. Years later, considering his religion of birth, he awoke with a dream. In it, he stepped into a mosque and approached elders soft eyed, warm breathed, bowing in devotion. Touched, wanting to join, he reverently tread up the aisle to find his place. Row by row, aspirants’ eyes grew more hardened, breath, sharper until at last he was commanded to perform lifeless, rigid movements. His dream showed him the progression of spiritual tradition through generations. He shuddered at what was once hallowed turned hollow and looked elsewhere for guidance.

We preserve living truth past its shelf life.

In my twenties, I pondered moving to a society where people sustain enlivened connections with the spiritual world, earth, and each other. But disengaging from enculturated ways of my upbringing seemed difficult, if not impossible. So I decided, “I was born into this society. I have a responsibility to it.”

At first, I tried to infuse my vision of a simpler life into the mainstream. I gave away my t.v. and radio, cut up credit cards, walked and biked when possible. With few byways off the beaten path, life was hard. Navigating safe bike paths to buy food was dicey. Getting together with friends became a project. I felt unsourced, like a bird in Manhattan piecing together a nest with twist ties and six pack rings.

Over time, I accepted complexities I’d rather live without, like a bank account and insurance. I discovered undercurrents of folk music, macrobiotic pot lucks, and thrift shops. I partook in community gardening, contra dancing and an anthroposophical study group. I pieced together a life of necessity and community, reaping the fruits of seeds sown by like-minded folks.

Having eaten the camel, the last third of our lives, according to the myth, we can become the wise child. Recovering our innocence and remembering our knowingness, we can share our gifts.

“In India, performers of classical music do not make their public debut until they are in their 40’s. A lifetime of study and spiritual practice is … prerequisite … to be ‘in tune’ with the entire cosmos before rendering music that recapitulates (the) cosmic order.”** 

I’ve been tending my inner garden to cultivate fruits for the world. How about you?

While studying at NYU, I was introduced to the Speak Easy, a folk coop on MacDougal Street. I’d been writing songs for a while and soon started performing. Knowing I couldn’t bear a desk job after graduation and wanting to devote time to writing, I prayed nightly for guidance. I dreamt three times of being a teacher.

Teaching is a good fit for my capabilities and creativity. After further studies at Hofstra, I learned of a clinic where I was taught to tutor students with Dyslexia. Loving one-on-one instruction, I withdrew applications to teach in schools. Since then, I’ve tutored, taught in public and private schools and further trained to help students overcome math and writing difficulties and prepare for college entrance exams. Integrating Waldorf, Montessori and other methods, I’ve pieced together traditional and alternative modes. And have written songs and played out as I could.

I’ve come to see Grammar as a way to enliven our understanding of ourselves and our world. I try to show students that nouns name physical and spiritual forms in space, and verbs, creation into being through time. Geometry and numbers are archetypes of patterns and realities behind all processes. I point to these truths to inspire students to delve their realms. I engage learners with exploration and conversation hoping they’ll glean their own understanding, rather than feeding them dry formulas and definitions. I pray for my students nightly to be guided to help them fulfill what they are here to become and bestow.

I have two callings. One to the children I teach and one to the world at large.

Over Christmas vacation, my friend Pete* and I overturned the lawn in my backyard. We cut up branches of trimmed trees and laid them in circular mounds. We layered soil and mulch and planted native and Florida friendly fruit trees and flowers.

Pete says curves, not lines, are natural, allowing energy to flow. Mounds draw in cosmic forces. Buried branches attract worms, replicating forest floor. Our work welcomes nature to settle in.

Growing up, I felt pressed to step from life to the confines of dead doctrine. Like a weed in a cracked sidewalk, I sought sustenance from earth and sky, seeking to break ground. In my garden, students, friends and I can breathe with enlivened creation, watch natural rhythms, and allow ourselves to join its dance.

 

 

 

**The Dances of Universal Peace North American Journal, issue 5, Winter 2006/2007 p 26

* Peter Blake, Home Farm: A Division of Permafarm, Harmonizing urban agriculture with today’s living: balancepointbody@gmail.com

 


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Word’s Worth

 

 

The Bible says the Creator called forth existence with the words, “Let there be light.” And, “In the beginning was the Word,” through which all things came into being and continue to arise.

 

Regardless of how we think life started and unfolds, we may consider, words create.

 

Some may claim, “Words are nothing. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” I, too, once thought so. Wrestling in my youth with a passion for writing, I anguished over the value of such a pursuit. After all, words don’t grow food or build houses; they’re insubstantial.

 

But I’ve come to learn while words are ‘no thing’ they’re the maker and slayer of all ‘things’. Chosen parcels of impassioned thoughts, from “please pass the pepper” to “I love you’ convey information and prompt action.

 

Words matter.

 

Often, with only someone’s words, we weave pictures of the world and act. I’ve heard talk show hosts stir up animosity in listeners asserting immigrants are “leeches’ sucking resources from government programs. It’s easy to serve up generalities. Instead, comedian Christela Alonzo tells tales of Latino friends and family. She jokes her undocumented mom hid from Brownies selling Girl Scout cookies, scared they were border control officers in training. Many immigrants are afraid to use government programs, even after becoming citizens, like her mom who refused Medicaid and died young without needed care. Once words are shared, who knows what they’ll arouse. So,

 

I’m watchful of words.

 

I recently heard my friend, June, is a Trump supporter. This baffles me, a Bernie fan. June listens to ‘conservative’ news while I, ‘progressive’. She says she’s excited about Trump bringing jobs back to America by cutting excessive taxes on corporations. I’d never heard this voiced by liberal reports. I shared I fear Trump’s corporate ties will hurt common folks.  June isn’t worried. She thinks he’ll do right by us. I believe the political divide across which our country battles is fed by partially pointing words beyond which caring folks don’t see common ground.

 

Words are powerful instigators.

 

Disturbed by my long time ‘false comfort of group think’, given the one-sidedness of my sources, I’ve started tuning into news more broadly, alternating between various media on given days to piece together my own story. I take days off between to let things settle and sort.

 

Ideas, like food, need to be digested to extract what’s useful.

 

Consuming diverse reports forces me to chew on words rather than swallowing them whole. Applying a dose of reasoning, I hope to extract a glimpse of life beyond my experience.

 

One bit of advice I keep in mind is that when an opposing party wins an election, it’ll promote an opposing agenda. But, opposing need not mean ‘oppositional’ but ‘opposite’. My work is to discern when diverse views are complementary and when they’re harmful.

 

I recently watched a YouTube link sent by progressive Citizen’s Climate Lobby introducing a conservative plan for climate action. I was delighted to hear former Republican cabinet members express real concern or measured precaution about risks of global warming. As thoughtful elders of the Climate Leadership Council stepped across the aisle to share their Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends, I realized I’ve been ignoring business needs in favor of environmental ones. Both require attention. While I’m wary about eliminating all environmental regulations the plan proposes,

 

I’ll taste a new dish to see if I like it.

 

After all, arguing my case without considering another’s, I miss mistakes and learning. At times when there’s no right or wrong, simply different perspectives, my friend, Catherine, and her husband seek a third point with which they can both align. When she wants to go on vacation and he, save money, a staycation of day trips around the area satisfies both. Reaching from opposite points on a line toward a pinnacle, they form a triangle containing each side. Mathematician Michael Schneider says the world of opposites arises from one point. Interplays of duality find resolution through synthesis of a triad. While it’s easy to hold fast to our point of view forgetting we’re a piece of the pie,

 

When we listen and speak for common good we build democracy.

 

Words like “We’re number one!”, “We won!”, and “They’re creamed” may inspire feats in sports, but lay waste real needs of living beings. They’re battle cries, not community builders. I’m concerned when my fourth grade student, Zach, is anxious to be ‘the best’ which is different than being ‘his best’. He’s ingested our culture’s banter and cultivated an oppositional stance.

 

Words define worlds.

 

I cringe when folks cry, “Dump Trump!” Insults deter communication; attacks fuel fights. Pleas like “Diversity Matters” and “Love Thy Neighbor” draw us closer. The stab “Republicans couldn’t get a health care bill together” is a lost opportunity for spreading understanding. Acknowledging Republicans are abstaining until a more appetizing entrée is prepared settles the civic stomach.

 

Words build barriers or bridges.

 

Sugars coated sayings, like cotton candy, are empty and can be sickening. “Globalization lifts all boats” is enticing but can deliver greed and suffering. Phrases fettered from reality need be passed up lest they clog thinking. But measured words bursting with life are hard to let go. Bitter tasting, “What comes around goes around” burrows in disturbing deception’s enchantment, breaking illusion’s bubble, pestering me to swallow truth.

 

Real words stick.

 

Gandhi said Westerners read too much. He sat in silence to garner reality. Some of the wisest souls to walk the earth are illiterate. In Waldorf Schools, children aren’t taught to read until 4th grade to allow imaginative forces to develop. Once formed, children have grounding against which to weigh words. California Governor Jerry Brown says while science cooks up a banquet of data it lacks wisdom to serve the good.  Letting words settle helps me discover their value.

 

Reading broadens our world. Silence deepens it.

 

We may fear losing touch if we drop out of the stream of current events. But by constantly consuming each glimmering or gruesome detail, we miss the big picture.

 

A glut of information causes indigestion.

 

With excess accounts available, I can conceive of knowing what’s happening everywhere. But see from my difficulty deciphering differing stories of student fights in my classroom, I can at most comprehend bits of the world around.

 

There’s much we don’t know; little we control.

 

Confucius says social order starts with individuals and spreads outward. Souls sincerely sifting reality develop character which nurtures order in families, good governance in states and peace in the world.

 

Everybody’s words flavor the cultural cuisine.

 

William Wordsworth sat silently in nature sipping inspiration. Imagination brimming, he prepared poems and passed them ‘cross our table:

 

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

… from my first dawn

Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human soul;

… with enduring things,

… purifying thus

…feeling and … thought,

… until we recognize

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

Words are stars we follow to tomorrow.

 

May ours nourish common good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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What Lies Beneath

 

I’m finding that what I’m needing’s often within me, just hidden, like a vine covered well.

 

A kind of ignorance sets me chasing outside treasures before considering what I possess. Just last week I scavenged three stores and two internet sites for the perfect cotton socks, only to find after my purchase three nice unwrapped sets stored in the back of my drawer since Christmas.

 

So too, beliefs and impulses influencing me remain concealed.

That’s why I meditate — to take stock of myself lest I overlook what’s present.

 

Slipping off my shoes, I step into a daylong retreat on Lido Key. Ed turns from the bookcase and waves, sipping water from a blue and white porcelain cup. Fran smiles and picks up her colorful meditation scarf as I place my purse on the couch.

 

After our greetings, I gingerly enter the Japanese style zendo, inhaling a palpable peace gathered over many dedicated sessions. Light streams from high windows to the left onto the cork floor. Buddha sits on an altar ahead beside freshly picked mangoes and soon to be lit incense. Ish, eyes closed, settles into his favorite cushioned chair. Michael nods, tucking his white cotton shirt into loose white pants. Our host, Estelle, enters and thanks us.

 

“Why thank us?” I ask.

 

“Because, when we meditate together, we encourage each other’s practice, “she says. “And as we face ourselves just as we are, without judging, our compassion naturally arises and benefits everyone.”

 

Legs crossed on my mat, I glance at others evenly spaced along opposite white walls. I bow in gratitude, as they quietly adjust wooden stools, straighten backs and clasp hands preparing to go within. Together, we slip into silence each Sunday afternoon and once a month for this Saturday retreat.

 

During five silent hours, we sit, walk and eat, tending to breath, observing thoughts, perceiving sensations. Fears and desires for our future, tendencies and memories of our past arise and dissipate.

 

I let suggestions waft by: “A piece of chocolate would be nice,” “I’ll be penniless without this awful job.” I focus on the present, bearing a peace in which I come to dwell. Free from the sway of ideas and feelings, I navigate my way into awareness.

 

I used to think meditation was mysterious; I now see it as inner housekeeping.

 

Many plain folks known as Quakers who settled our country did too. Last week, my friend JoAnn visited from Cross Creek bringing a pamphlet called “Light to Live By” by contemporary Quaker Rex Amber.

 

“You’ve gotta read this,” she says. “It’s what I want to do. Hopefully, Friends in my Quaker Meeting will too!”

 

Eagerly absorbing each line, I learn how early Americans gathered in silence bringing Inner Light to their consciences. “For with the Light,” Quaker founder George Fox said, “man sees himself.”

 

Together, Friends quaked and sweated, confronting demons, unveiling deceit and disengaging from temptation, until minds grew clear and hearts peaceful. With attitudes and intentions aligned with reality, they saw we all share the same Inner Light and acted accordingly. Many boldly stood to shelter Negroes seeking freedom through the underground railway. Women like Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul spoke out and won women rights.

 

The light within is brilliant. Who knows what we’ll see and do if we look with our inner lanterns?

 

Ten years ago, seeking solace during a hectic holiday trip on Long Island, I visited a Quaker Meeting in Manhasset. Driving to the end of Shelter Rock Road, I approached a light allowing me to turn left or right, but not continue straight into the parking lot of the Meeting House. Amongst the bustle of luxurious stores like Lord and Taylor, Gucci and Ralph Loren, this quiet 18th century Quaker building had no acknowledged entrance. Driving off the blacktop path, I stole forward from traffic onto an empty gravel parking lot. Leaving my car, I strolled upon bare earth, inhaling silent vestiges of simpler days — towering oaks, thick wooden paned windows and sun-bleached porch boards. As I entered the dimly lit structure, a smiling middle aged woman greeted me. Alma, one of three remaining members, came each Sunday for worship, in case a visitor arrived.

 

We stepped into a spacious wooden beamed room, as light trickled in from all sides and quietly sat on bare benches near a back window. Eyes closed, I felt soothed by a serene presence. At the end of a peaceful hour of silence, as if a tender hearted elder whispered in my thoughts, I heard, “Don’t get caught up in what’s wrong with the world. Focus on the inner light of truth. Bring it to all you do.”

 

My soul grew alight in a radiance that remained with me for months. After Alma and I toured the grounds and said our goodbyes, I meandered back onto Shelter Rock Road, among darting SUVs, with an inner stillness. Driving past elegant, glittering store windows, I remembered many to my young mind senseless shopping sprees with my mom to these neighboring sites for turtleneck sweaters and corduroy slacks, and thought how better satisfied I would have been to simply sit on that hard bench in the Meetinghouse, had I known it was there.

 

Forsaking shopping for nobler pursuits has bought much social good. Mahatma Gandhi sat quietly, deciding how to respond to Britain’s might so as to undermine its aggression. While in jail, Nelson Mandela faced his fear and rage, purging and strengthening himself to later lead his people to sovereignty. Both directed boycotts dismantling destructive power structures.

 

We sit in silence to take hold of ourselves and the world.

 

Accelerating to converge with the hurried stream of motion on the Long Island Expressway, I consider how, as a teacher, the definition I most often hear of ‘noun’ is “person, place or thing” and ‘verb’, “action”, as in ‘boy hit ball’ or ‘girl bought dress.’ We’re captivated by this world of concrete nouns and action verbs. Little do we value abstract nouns indicating ‘ideas, qualities and feelings’ and linking verbs telling ‘state of being’, as in “I am a citizen” and “I am contributing.” Yet, these name our conditions of existence and bear the seeds of creation.

 

I think of the Oriental saying on my friend Andrew’s wall hanging, “Thoughts become Actions, Actions become Habits, Habits become Character and Character becomes fate. “

 

The thoughts we hold affect our lives more than the objects we possess.

 

Slowing to exit at Sunnyside Boulevard, I glance at somber, bare trees and grey ground – a lifeless winter scene. Yet, I’ve learned from my compost pile that activity quietly brews below. Orange squash and purple eggplant peels are broken down into brilliant black soil nourishing new life.

 

Without inner activity, no outer work can be done.

 

Like my students, however, I’m culturally geared to completing tasks. I busy myself daily with a litany of chores – wash sheets, water tomatoes, check on Barbara, buy coconut oil – as on a treadmill of endless doing. I can easily forge ahead without considering what’s driving me: “Why am I checking my email again?” “Do I really need to go to another holiday event?”

 

I tend to think solutions mean changing things, not seeing them more clearly. Kahlil Gibran reminds us in The Prophet, “Let us not be too quick to call (something) evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?” Rather than reacting, I can ask myself, “Why is Susie scribbling instead of practicing the ‘silent e’ rule?” “What might the confederate flag on his license plate mean to the young guy across the street?”

 

I’m noticing looking deeper and acting thoughtfully is what brings peace and joy.

 

So, I try to leave space between activities, interspersing inner and outer work. I let last minute texts from parents to reschedule sessions sit and settle, so I can consider what’s best. Saddened by news of national guards pelleting peaceful protestors at Standing Rock, I sit in my car before entering Ace Hardware to buy canning lids.

 

Situations need to be digested to make good use of them.

 

To do so, I sit with sordid circumstances I’ve borne, observing tightened muscles, tangled emotions, and disheveled thoughts. In time, I spot mistaken beliefs leading me astray. “It’s not my place to change my parents’ political views.” Humbly, I repent – think again — and act more respectfully.

 

I’m practicing to make this rhythmic dance my pattern.

 

One day, perhaps, mine and others’ souls will naturally flow, like breath, between inner and outer realms, in light and endless renewal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Health of Nations

While I’m mulching my fall garden, a Sarasota County Utility van pulls to the curb. “What’s up?” I call springing towards a young man now lifting a concrete lid from the ground.

Crouched amidst scattered tools and tussled grass, he looks up enthusiastically, “We’re putting in new water meters whose signals can be read from our cars.”

 

Though his sincerity and diligence warm me, I’m agitated, thinking, I’m sure this will save money, and lifting heavy slabs in the heat can be a drag, but sitting in a car watching a screen doesn’t sound fun. Anyway, did anyone ask if I want this? And, what will these signals do to my nervous system?

 

Not knowing what to say, I wish him well and wander back to the soil.

 

I notice my tomato plant, eagerly stretching towards the sun. Yesterday, it was drooping in the heat, so I watered it. I feel its limbs, now firm. Great! I think, but wonder, do we want to become like this plant, needing everything brought to us?

 

Bending down, I continue laying chipped oak around heart-shaped squash leaves to buffer their roots from wind and heat. I think on generations of farmers digging soil to sow seeds, swinging scythes to cut hay, lifting bales to feed horses. Folks toiled and got tired as sweat cleansed their systems, muscles grew taut and minds were shaped by natural rhythms and boundaries.

 

Now machines can do our work and we can sit and watch. But tasks once completed in the course of our labor now need our will power to be accomplished. We must carry out and endure a fast to cleanse our insides, work out at the gym lifting weights to build our muscle and manage myriad conceivable activities to organize our time, lest we suffer disease, obesity and chaos.

 

But, I remember my friend Joe’s words last night at our book study. Sitting across his handmade coffee table, he says, “We aren’t helping young people develop their wills. By doing art and handwork, kids put themselves out into the world. But we cut out these activities thinking they’re frivolous.”

 

“Handwork and art develop critical thinking skills,” his wife Ann, sitting beside him on their couch, adds “without which, we can’t form our own initiatives. “ I nod, admiring her spinning wheel and baskets of spun and dyed yarn set behind her.

 

“And how can we be free?” Pete asks, stilling his swaying rocker, “if we can’t respond creatively to the world? My fiancée, Tanya, and I took her nephew, Carl, to the Kennedy Space Center last week. The kid kept his eyes locked on his pokeman game. He didn’t listen to the astronaut’s tales of explorations or look at the pictures of earth from outer space, only watched imaginary images on his phone screen.”

 

“What’s scary,” Debbie adds, “is that these activities shape neuropathways that form ideas and build our abilities and habits.

 

I cringe as the concrete lid clangs closed on the new meter. Sweat drips from my brow while one more societal wheel is set on the rail of automaticity. As neighbors toil at their desks unaware, I kneel on the soil wondering what to do.

 

An ant traipses across my elbow. I twitch and push it to the ground. Fireflies swirl by my cheek; white puffs float overhead. I look up to admire the procession, inhaling warm air, then wiping brown crumbs of earth from my knees, stand, walk to the hose and wash.

 

Munching purple hibiscus leaves I’ve picked, I slide open and closed the glass door and lift my crank radio from the kitchen table. I turn the handle a few rounds and listen to the broadcast while cutting dandelion leaves to steam.

 

Madhya Pradesh became the first state in India to create a Department of Happiness. Its Chief Minister who borrowed the idea from neighboring Bhutan says the department will work to “ensure happiness of the common people.”

 

Bhutan measures gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product as we do. The country preserves its natural resources by outlawing killing animals and importing chemical fertilizers. Forests aren’t cut down and people live amidst rich wildlife supplying their food and clothing needs.

 

What a different culture! I think. Here we are racing to maximize stock returns, minimize labor and cram pack productivity, thoughtless of our impact on plants and animals. We mechanize our work, thinking we’re lightening our load, but quicken the pace, leaving many of us stressed and depressed. What would a US Department of Happiness say about this?

 

Dishes washed, I walk to my desk, sit, reach for my pen and write my quarterly check to WSLR. While I have my health insurance premium automatically deposited monthly, I want to consciously send in this donation. I like that Amish people choose which machines to use and when. I’m trying to be as thoughtful. While I use a washing machine, I love to stand in the sun and breeze, hanging clothes on the line so run a dryer only occasionally during rainy season. I bought a car without a screen to show me what’s behind, preferring to turn my head. While this wouldn’t be the best choice for my mom, who can’t easily do so, it fits for me; I want to see and hear what’s behind my car using my neck muscle. So often we automatically think automatic is best, not considering there’s a tradeoff.

 

I wonder if our real energy crisis is our lack of will to get up and move.

 

“People seem to forget we’re here to develop ourselves spiritually,” David says that evening at the monthly salon in my living room. “We’re here to become better people, not sit back and be entertained. We’re wasting our opportunity.”

 

“My brother, Joe, took his dog for a walk at 2 am in the park across from his house last Tuesday.” Iris adds, putting down her glass of water. “The park’s usually vacant but he sees a light and then two people looking into the glare of their phone. He watches warily. Two more folks totter by in a trance. He slowly approaches and asks if everything’s okay.

 

“’Oh, yes,’” a young college student says eagerly, “’we’re looking for pokeman.’

 

“’Excuse me,’” my brother inquires and is directed to look at the young man’s phone screen. Puzzled, he asks, “’Don’t you fellers have anything more important in your life that requires you rest rather than walk around at 2 a.m. looking for an imaginary figure?’” Puzzled, the young man replies, “’I thought this would be a good thing to do. I’m not out drinking or taking drugs.’”

 

“Stumped, my brother returns to his house, but later thinks. ‘It looks innocuous, but they’re addicts, dragged around by someone else’s beckoning.’

 

“The guy who invented Pokeman was trying to get people out of their houses interacting with each other. And he has, which is a good thing” Iris adds, sitting upright on the couch. “But I’m concerned folks substitute this search through their cell phone for self-initiated connection with each other and nature.”

 

“We’re always trying to get out of exerting ourselves, “David adds, “not realizing we’re weakening our faculties and morale. There are lots of fun things to do,” he says, picking up his harmonica, wafting a melody through the air. “Like playing this harmonica with friends,” he says, putting it on his lap, “playing board games, baking cookies, planting a garden.”

 

“Muuuch more enlivening than watching image after image on a screen, one thought streaming into to another,” Iris adds.

 

“And more peaceful,” I say. “I can only take in so many words and images a day and then need to digest them. Doing things with my hands, like crocheting and needlework, helps me think through and make sense of things. And it doesn’t cost much.”

 

“Plus, you have something you made to give someone,” David adds, smiling.

 

I share of the Department of Happiness and we agree better to foster the health of nations than the wealth of nations.

 

 

 

 


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Community Currency

It’s Monday, April 18, Tax Day. Last night, simmering under sheets, I couldn’t sleep. At 3:30 am, I paced terrazzo floors and resigned to the prospect of not buying the house.

 

The closing had been set for this Friday, Earth Day. But last week, my loan officer called, “The processor says you need to close Monday, or, since you’re self-employed, you’ll need to file proof of income for the new tax year.” Sarah pressed,” Then, we’re at the mercy of the IRS and who knows when they’ll clear things and if the seller will wait!”

 

I gasped. This house-buying had been a roller coaster since my application figures were mistyped and closing date set too late and I switched lenders. Bracing myself, I breathed deep and called my realtor. “Somebody didn’t know this sooner?” Judy shuddered. “I’m in Philadelphia. My sister bought me tickets for my birthday. I won’t be back ‘til Monday evening! But, you can close without me.”

 

“I can? “My eyebrows rose. Settling myself, I called my lawyer to reschedule the closing. Her assistant, Laura, answered. “There’s a possible defect in the deed,” she said. “We’ve been going back and forth with the title company. We didn’t say anything cause things weren’t clear. We’ll be in touch.” Staring at the wall, I swallowed hard, clutched my keys and stumbled to the car.

 

As my eyes scanned Fruitville Road intersections on the trip to tutor Algebra, my mind scrambled, “What’s a deed defect?”

 

That night, I phoned my sister in law, Shirley, a housing lawyer in California, to find out. When she said, “I’m leaving for Canada tomorrow at 6 am and I’ll be in flight all day,” my attention shot in anxious arcs. But as she closed, “I’ll call your lawyer before I leave to see what can be done,” my nerves settled and I slept.

 

While the new day arrived, the lawyer was not to be found. So, I drove to her office. There Stella, her kindly receptionist, told me my lawyer and assistant were in conference all day, unavailable. My shoulders tensed. As Stella’s warm manner softened my senses, sobering words seeped through my aching heart and I pleaded. Staring at my desperation, she dialed the assistant to see what she could do and Laura came out to the waiting room to talk with me.

 

“There’s no way we can close Monday,” Laura insisted. “The title company needs to properly document and record the deed. It’s their responsibility!”

 

“But they’re not doing it.” I said, my eyes prodding. “Please, I’m paying you. Write up the document and send it to them to sign. I may lose the house!” “I can’t promise anything!” she replied. “We’re in conference all day. You were supposed to close next week! ”

 

Wrung out, I descended by elevator to the vacuous lobby. I pressed through the revolving door to the stifling street scorching in the sun. Pacing, blinking out glare, tilting my phone to view numerals, I dialed my brother Rich, a California lawyer, to see if he could draw up a document though it wasn’t his field. “It’s a tight day, Donna. I have a meeting with a congressman in 5 minutes, but I’ll do what I can.

 

And he did, as did my attorney’s assistant who sent out a document 4:30 pm, Friday afternoon.

 

The weekend was barren. With no word from the lawyer, my thoughts simmered. In the abyss of Sunday’s dark, I crawled from bed, strode shadowy hallways and conceded, “I might not get the house.”

 

But Monday morning, eyes glazed, I squinted at my lawyer‘s email. I think we can make this happen. Come by the office. She had received a scanned copy of the signed document; the original would be overnighted.

 

Could this be true?” My stomach stirred, as I slid my dress on, half believing the house would be mine.

 

At 10 a.m., perched in my attorney’s conference room overlooking Sarasota roof tops, I stretched my spent mind around explanations of piled pages I signed and dated. Then, gobbling an almond butter and starfruit jam sandwich, I sprang to tutor a high school student Geometry for her End of Course Exam. On the drive home, under a starry sky, my realtor’s voice rang from the phone. She’d meet me at the house in the morning with the key. My skeptical eyes closed at her words to grasp them then opened suddenly as my foot pounded the brake to avoid hitting a Honda stopped at the light. Starring in the space between cars, I gathered, “The house is mine.”

 

Returned to my rented home, I’m sprawled on the couch, temples pounding. My listless eyes scan books on shelves, curtains on rods and compost in the yard. A vague memory of my plan to pack a room a week flits by. This was my intent before days ran full of texting what the seller must for the house to pass inspection, proving bank deposits weren’t laundered so the processor would finalize my loan  and tutoring frantic students to pass statewide exams. “At least I dug up and bagged the garden soil to bring with me and sowed grass in its place,” I think. But the mount of empty boxes bears on me. “How can I pack, move and clean this place in a week and a half?” my drained mind mulls. I consider hiring a mover, no longer able to depend on my former boyfriend’s truck and strong arms, yet can’t see spending the money while saving for a new a/c. But it’s an option I sleep on.

 

Tuesday morning arises with a thought. A moving party! I beam. Yes, but will folks come? I send an email to find out: Earth Day, New Digs, Moving Party and Potluck. Bring your car and dish to share to my old place. Take over a load and eat with friends at my new one.

 

Hatchback brimming with canning jars, rakes and shovels, I drive to my new home to meet my realtor, Judy. Down Bahia Vista Avenue, dodging Amish couples on bikes, eying clusters of bearded men and aproned women licking ice cream cones, I ponder, “I can bring my things from one house to another, but how can I move from living alone to in community?”

 

After Judy leaves my new home, I walk the land barefoot. Caressing citrus leaves, lying on pine needles, peeking under oaks branches, I think, “This is mine to take care of… and it will take care of me!” I picture tomatoes and okras budding by the patio, an outdoor shower perched by the pines, rockers swaying on the porch, and dance in delight.

 

Before driving to work, I see my friend Jessica’s text, “I’ll be in Tallahassee at FSA helping with a conference on sex-trafficking, but can come by Thursday morning to help you move!”

 

“Great!” I write back, sighing in relief. “Can you bring your boyfriend’s SUV?”

 

“Yep, and he’ll come too if he can,” she replies.

 

Maya phones, “Friday’s Passover and my landlady’s having a Seder. I want to join her and her family, but can help in the morning.”

 

“Wonderful!” my shoulders relax, “We’ll have lunch.”

 

That evening at my Anthroposophical study group Joe says, “There’s a truck in the driveway. Take it any time!” Thrilled to be doubling my carrying capacity, I drive it home, thinking I’ll make him a chocolate tofu pie when I find my pie plate.

 

Come Thursday morning, Jessica backs up to my front door in her boyfriend’s SUV. She zips into the living room and we survey dining room chairs and table, deciding what to load first and where. After shimmying then carrying furniture, we dart inside and out, sliding a tall lamp in this slot, a small box of pencils in that. “Good puzzling skills,” Jessica confirms, as our vehicles brim with a collage of my belongings. After unloading at my new abode, we gleefully look around then hug good bye so she can get back to her graduate school reading and packing for her trip.

 

Friday morning, Maya moseys up the front walk, straw hat tilted towards sky, “Whaat a beeeauutiful day! I prefer this heat to New England blizzards. How ‘bout you? “

 

“The heat,” I say, staring at piled boxes.

 

Maya meanders in, eying the disarrayed lamps and bookcase. “Quiiite a sceeene here,” she muses. “Moving is an event.”

 

Maya’s on siesta recently relocated from Massachusetts. She’s a gem for driving 30 minutes from Venice to help me, but I wrestle with the impulse to drag her into my frenzied pace. Instead, I try to brake, slowing down a few gears, and in time, we load boxes. But when I see the single layer of file drawers neatly lain on her back seat, I turn to the house to compose myself. Then, in weighed words explain the efficiency of full carloads and improbability of my moving on time, without them. We come to temper each other, I stretching her stride, she slowing me down to a reasoned rhythm, softening my heart.

 

That evening, doors fly open and seats and trunks are packed full. Cars turn left then right in array as a flock of geese in route to my home. Amid boxes of books and leaning mops and brooms, Maura, Ann, Neil and I sip red pepper soup and talk around the table.

 

“Back in the day,” Ann says, “A group of friends and I planned to live in community. Instead of sitting around gabbing, we did projects: shingled roofs, painted sheds, dug gardens. We saw who needs to take their time, who can’t take the heat — we got to know each other.”

 

“Yes,” I nod, grateful my solitary creek’s current is mingled with my friends’ streams.

 

With my having much more to move, Glenn arrives the following Wednesday at 7 am, lifting a dolly from his car. “What’s to do?” he asks. As we make our way around the house, dissembling the compost bin, stacking tomato cages, bagging mulch, he tells of his enlistment in Vietnam, teaching English in Germany, transporting 13 huskies to Maine.

 

And after tilting the last shovel of mulch into the lawn bag, he wipes his sweated brow and admits, “Boy, I didn’t think we’d get through that!” My indebted eyes concur.

 

At 8:30, Tessy comes for the second time. “This is more than a person can do alone” she says, and starts packing cups and plates. JFK and Chris drive up at 9 to heave my couch and bags of compost into their truck.

 

In a daze and wonder I look around, feeling that I’m carried on a current of friendship.

 

Tessy pokes her head from behind the cabinet and says, “This feels like a modern day barn-raising.”

 

And it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Call To Action

After hanging damp sheets on the line

Writing a check due the IRS

And baking russet potatoes

 

After calling elder friends to say “hi”

Texting my West Coast niece Ella

Watering broccoli rabe and tomatoes

 

After dodging traffic downtown

To teach Amanda how

To plan and outline an essay

 

Pumping cheap unleaded gas

Buying bulk black beans and jarred molasses

Hearing Chris Hedges on Alternative Radio

 

Through unloading my stuffed car

Unpacking my cloth bags

Washing bowls now grown crusty

 

Skimming high piles of mail

Recycling unwanted ads

Jotting my to dos for tomorrow

 

I stretch by beeswax candlelight

On a warm cotton blanket

By the cool terrazzo floor

 

And sit on the futon’s edge

Reviewing my day passed

I pray for students and family and friends

Then turn on the lamp

To read Steiner’s Philosophy of Freedom

 

When words begin to jumble

Meaninglessly

In circles

My mind drifting

Toward night’s sky

 

I close the cover

Switch off the light

Turn down the sheets

And lie to sleep

 

After myriad in and out breaths

Way past midnight

Beyond din of traffic

And glow of lamp light

 

Deep in stillness

Stars shining

Moon beaming

Planets whirling

My body lying

In slumber

 

I soar through night’s sky

Amongst others

Remembering

Regaining

Restoring

 

With heavenly bodies

I review my purpose

Rekindle aspiration

Realign my intent

 

Then with the sun’s first glimmer

My body revived

Through rest

From my spirit-soul’s absence

 

Now returned to bed

I awake

To hear, Call to action!

Sounding through my dormant mind

 

Turn off the radio

Turn down the lights

Close that book

Silence your smart phone

 

Put down your pen

And pad

And date book

 

Let go the million scattered pieces

Of things to do

Oh you, great organizer

 

Sit

 

Look within

And watch the thoughts

That run your day

 

Before digging one more hole

Planting another seed

Pulling out that weed

Tend to your mind’s garden

 

Take stock of its residents

Pests, parasites and predators

Half-truths, malicious lies and empty facts

You picked up off the streets

Absorbed from the paper

Ingested through the internet

 

Stop giving Despair a seat on your sofa

Feeding Anxiety your attention

Entertaining Contention with your mind

Imposters!

 

They devour your dreams’ buds

Suck your life’s forces

Consume your vision’s clarity

Clear them out!

 

Free ground for

Insight’s Stream

Inspiration’s Light

Intuition’s Soil

To settle

 

Let truth take root

Bringing meaning to matter

Order to your occupation

Purpose to your path

 

Then your soul can

Tend to its task

To bring to life

Your Spirit’s dream

 

And guided from within

Return to the outer world

To do

What needs doing


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Each of Us Bring Light

I back out of my driveway, turn down Courtland and slide onto Tuttle in 3:45 a.m. solitude. Sky is dark, roads barren on this first cross country trip since parting with my boyfriend, Andrew.

 

A solid presence slips in beside my vehicle — a deputy sheriff surveying Sarasota’s silent streets. His windows tinted, I only see his shadowed silhouette, yet am warmed by his caring charge. He’s watching out for me, I sense, like a lantern probing shadows. I nod in gratitude as we travel through night then part.

 

I merge onto I-75 and insert the cd my friend, Jessica, made me for Christmas — a collection of her favorite songs. A sensuous guitar intro of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujiah laced with Jeff Buckley‘s breathless inflections threads through my car’s chilly cabin. Andrew sang this, I recall, as tears of grief dormant in daylight spill from my chest.

 

Eddie Vedder laments that society wants to have more than we need. Ray LaMontagne suggests the answers are within us. Singer after singer delves his or her soul’s depths, bearing light for me to enter mine. Fellow travelers brave the night, helping me release a portion of sadness. Miles later, purged, I sit in silence and watch shadow and street light alternate on the road ahead.

 

At 4:30 am, the Skyway Bridge toll lay before me in an orange ball of light piercing gray. As I stop, a middle-aged, blonde woman reaches for my dollar twenty five, beaming, cheering my heart. “Is this early or late for you?” I ask.

 

“Late”, she bounces back.

 

“Thanks,” I smile, knowing she sleeps days so folks like me can pay our passage and cross the bridge. She’s a candle in the night. I think, driving on. With Andrew’s absence, I notice the many folks helping me on my way.

 

As I gaze down on Tampa Bay, silken and lulling, I push the radio knob on my dashboard. British accents drum out BBC’s report, chopping through the calm. Across the Atlantic, day’s activities are in motion. Refugees are still fleeing Syria. A 19 year old’s body is found under rubble of an earthquake. Climatologists report increased sea level rises. Bloody scenes, cries for help, flooded coastlines fill my mind. As I inhale damage and despair, my grief is replaced by others’. And when filled to brim with images of destruction, I utter a prayer, press off the news and turn my thoughts to deeds of good people working in shadows, bringing in light.

 

I remember a war reporter telling there’s always another side to tragedy. An elderly woman harboring orphans in her home, a mother handing her baby to a stranger on a bus leaving battle, formerly distant neighbors sharing remnants of food and shelter. Virtuous acts of courage and caring emerge amidst unimaginable suffering. There is much brilliance in ordinary folks, she says.

 

I think of the sheriff deputy who escorted me. So much bad news about cops, I forget there are good police doing good work. News of drought, wildfire and tornadoes flood the air waves. Yet searching the internet, I’ve found communities cropping up all over of folks living simply, cooperatively and sustainably. It’s so easy to forget if I don’t keep it in view, I think. Much light is hidden.

 

At 4:45 a.m., I pull into A-1 Express’s glowing parking lot where I’ll leave my car during my trip to Berkeley. Once checked in, I stand in line then step into the dimly lit mini bus that will drive me to the airport. A gritty driver greets me and each entering passenger through stillness, “Good morning. Happy Holidays.”

 

“Happy Holidays to you,” I reply.

 

He asks us for flight information then darts dutifully through Tampa’s cloaked, pre-dawn traffic to deliver us to our planes on time. A load lifted, I sit in the lull of his carriage. On the seat across the aisle, a young couple, neatly groomed with fur lined boots and tautly packed bags huddle, whispering. I sense their softness in the night, reminding me we are vulnerable, can be broken.

 

At the airport, I thank the driver and step from his lit carriage into black. As I walk through the brightly lit terminal to gate A20, I glance into faces of folks coming toward me, thinking, you and you and you, such brave souls on this planet, facing such turmoil.

 

At the gate, I line up with others to board. Once called to enter the plane, folks surge forward. I leave space for those standing in line before me but to the side. They shuffle in ahead along with a brisk woman jutting from behind. Stunned, I wince, then realize, she’s unusual. Most folks are taking their turn. I join their ranks.

 

In my window seat, shade down to cold dark, I flip through American Airlines Magazine to the flight destination maps. There’s Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay. My eyes scan up to the right, Norway, Sweden, Denmark. Despite ISIS attacks a week earlier, folks the world round came to the Paris Climate Conference to face our common destiny, sort interests, find agreement and go home to do their part. This thought lightens me.

 

I reach for my water. Ordinarily, I carry a glass jar from home, not to use plastic, but unable to carry fluids on flight, I bought a liter at the terminal. Its label claims, “Earth’s finest water”. I grimace, take a sip, then pull on my head phones to hear one of the Fleet Foxes singing he was brought up to believe he was unique, like a snowflake distinct among others. But, has decided he’d rather be a cog in a machine serving the greater good. My heart glows, joining his parade.

 

Above the clouds and hustle of day, my vision’s enlightened. What if we have no Grammy Awards, no vying to be on top of the chart, to get the record deal? What if each singer and songwriter is seen as an offering in a banquet of muses nourishing our souls?

 

I think about Zach, a third grade boy I tutor. We begin each lesson with his drawing side-ways eights with beeswax crayons, building pathways between left and right hemispheres. Each time he asks, “Is this the best?”

 

“It’s beautiful. It’s lovely.” I reply week after week.

 

“No, is this the best?” he insists.
Last Saturday, wanting to save him from a lifetime of useless striving, I say, “There is no best, Zach. There are many beautiful ways to draw. You could never know or count or love them all.”

 

I realize he’s impressed with this notion of “THE BEST” at school, on TV. I need to explain. “Sometimes, if you want to pick a crayon to color the sun or a shirt to wear with pants, you can find what fits best in that case, but other colors and shirts might do better another time. So, there’s no one, all-time best.”

 

His shoulders settle. He stops striving like a salmon upstream and relaxes as a member of a family.

 

I think of the woman pushing ahead at the gate. We’re so compelled to ‘be first’, but what’s the point? We had assigned seats. Perhaps in life we do too, each of us preparing and being prepared a place ahead.

 

I recall hearing on the radio that ants have no hierarchy. Each sees a need and fits it. And of a small town devastated by a hurricane where folks flocked to a church. And two teenage sisters just started organizing, setting up an online list of needs and resources like food, clothing, and shelter. The community worked together and pulled themselves out of the wreckage. We each play our part, lightening the load.

 

I notice Chuck Brodsky singing we’re each other’s angels, meeting when it is time. Yes, I muse, glancing at the family beside me – a mom passing around sliced apples and walnuts, a teenage daughter brushing her little sister’s lustery brown hair, a young boy leaning on dad’s shoulder, thumb in mouth, watching pages flip as a story is spun in a familiar Long Island accent. Gentle breaths, easy smiles, and warm touches brighten my lonesome heart.

 

A stewardess approaches with her cart. I flip through the airline magazine to choose a drink. Tomato juice, I decide. It comes in a recyclable can, but she’ll pour it into a plastic cup. I crook my neck to see whether coffee is served in paper cups. Yes. I’ll ask for tomato juice, no ice, paper cup, please. She smiles and nods pleasantly at my request and hands me a paper napkin. Shoot, I think. I don’t need this, but it’s too complicated to give it back. I’ll use it as a tissue. I shake my head at my mental shenanigans, but realize, this is me, doing my part.

 

When our plane lands in Oakland’s late morning haze, I grab my overhead luggage and find my way through the bustling terminal to the sidewalk. There, my nephew, Ari, jumps from his dusty red truck. Smiling brightly, he embraces me, warming my heart. He lifts my luggage to the space behind our seats, jumps in the cabin, clicks on the ignition and turns to the road.

 

“What you been up to?” I ask.

 

He tells of his volunteering with a nonprofit which helps renters in disadvantaged communities. “Social equity builds better cities!” he states. His passion radiates through Oakland’s morning traffic’s din in telling of folks teaching each other to organize, speak up and work to meet needs. Enveloped in his glow, I bow in gratitude, knowing my nephew is bringing in light, as the voices of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young stream through the speakers that we’re stardust and we’re golden and we have to find our way back to the garden.