Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


2 Comments

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

 

Advertisements


2 Comments

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.

 

 

 

 


Leave a comment

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

.