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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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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Conserving Our Humanity

As a child, I was scolded by my mother for not walking the most direct route from living room to kitchen to refill a glass of seltzer. To her, a product of the 50’s, efficiency was the rule. Mom had to be conferred during dinner clean up to approve Tupperware choices for leftover ravioli or linguini; she’d screen for precise dimensions of best fits. Her dishwasher lessons were laden; cereal bowls and juice glasses my siblings and I had loaded that morning were extracted from trays and realigned in taut rows clearing space for dirty dinner plates and glasses.

 

Echoes of my mother’s voice still chide me from crevices of my mind, “Move faster!”, “Don’t waste time!”, “Be exact!”

 

So, when leaving for a party or a hike with my former boyfriend, if I was ready and he still searching for songbooks or a water bottle, I made good with time. I’d empty the dish rack or pull clothes off the line. This invariably left him waiting, which infuriated him. My practiced productivity proved disrespectful. And, after months of heated discussion and inner wrestling, I managed to forgo doing one more thing and just sit and wait for him.

 

I benefit in many ways from fruits of good labor, thanks to my mom, yet it‘s dawning on me that good living is made from more than efficiency. Being regimented, walking lock step in form erodes human sensibilities.

 

So yesterday, I cringed, when sitting in the library I overheard a tutor report to a mom that her son is up to 100 words per minute, but must be reading 120 to be on grade level.

 

My heart shivered. Are we aspiring to be machines inputting data? What about the boy’s picturing the pine-covered paths and towering canopies? His savoring the stillness, reminiscent of a walk with his grandpa last summer? Being transported to the wooded wonderland?

    

Such soul succulence is forsaken with speed.

 

Many life-giving connections are severed in the pursuit of productivity. Time-saving gadgets of the 50’s have evolved into devices that interface with reality, substitute for companionship and do our rightful work. Families forego conversing across dinner tables to text absent coworkers and friends, adults rely on smart phone notifications to prompt them to send a birthday card or call a parent, students type unintelligible words on keyboards leaving computer chips to adjust letters and create meaning. Machines have become our atmosphere, allies and appendages.

  

So, do we now feel compelled to perform as precisely and rapidly as they?

 

Last week, a high school student of mine was asked in a reasoning exercise to state the similarities and differences between “brain” and “computer”. He replied, “They’re both used to think, but computers are smarter.”

 

Aghast, I retorted, “Brains are living! Computers are lifeless!”

 

He was unmoved.

 

Machines are generally reliable. They do a specific task a fixed way. Set the coffee maker for 4 cups of dark coffee, go read the paper and await the green light signaling our drink is ready.

 

Have we come to expect such regularity and automaticity from ourselves and others?

 

Last week, I was pained to hear my friend, Jan, berate herself for not answering floods of business e-mails in a timely manner. She works 60 hour weeks, hasn’t taken a vacation in years and can’t find a way to slow down the tidal wave of her work much less take a break.

 

We forget we take as long as folks ever have to respond to each other’s requests, get to know someone, grieve a loved one. Machines give us the illusion we can live quicker. In many ways we strain ourselves, while the sun still takes a day and the moon, a month.

I told Jan about a poet who spoke to folks in corporations about the phases of the moon. Counter to corporate culture of continual growth, he evoked images of this waxing and waning orb, rising and falling in the rhythm of life.

 

We hold the illusory ideal of constant productivity, I told her. Before machines, folks stopped work when the sun set, rain fell or river froze. This inherent break gave pause to step back, refresh and reimagine. We’ve side-stepped such boundaries and now need to establish our own ebbs and flows to function.

      

Yeah, tell that to my boss who wants to see money coming in! she replied.

 

Someday I’ll just crack, she added.

 

I was disturbed, too, a few weeks back, to hear radio interviewer Terry Gross talk with Anil Ananthaswamy about deeply depressed folks who claim they are not alivedo not exist. July 28, 2015 http://www.npr.org/podcasts/381444908/fresh-air

Caring and befuddled doctors reason, ‘Clearly you’re breathing and moving, I can touch you, you’re here.’

 

But the poor people protest. Perhaps they know they’re a shell, void of spirit and soul, just some body going through motions.

 

Don’t we all feel this way at times?

 

My garden reminds me we are more like plants than machines. We’re birthed from seeds, deep in the womb of life. Not manmade inventions programmed to produce but heavenly creations with purpose. Through ‘in struct ion’ (the state of building structure within) we gain worldly skills and understandings. But these are simply tools for our work of unfolding divine dreams to uplift humanity. (For this, we need ‘e duc ation’, the state of leading out.)

 

We do not live on bread alone, but by every breath of inspiration and aspiration.

 

But, we’re too busy to sip nectar from the essence of life, too hurried to dine on deeper truths and chew for meaning. Instead, we swallow whole what comes our way. A pretty face on TV bemoaning white hair, a pressured teacher directing us to use an unexplained formula, an esteemed athlete chanting Crush the opponent! are commands we input and follow.

 

Yet, unexamined, automatic thinking is deadening. And a message imprinted in childhood can run repeatedly, never questioned in the light of day.

 

A gentleman suffered with terrible headaches for years. After seeking many cures, he spoke to an Indian medicine man. The healer alerted him, You listen to news, read a magazine article, watch a movie. You have millions of strands of unrelated thoughts you’re straining to try to tie together. You are giving yourself a headache.

 

My Quaker friend, Joe, told me he stopped his cable subscription, monitors radio and TV input and watches only DVDs he finds enriching. So often we are careful to screen food intake, but ingest any message or image streaming from speakers and computer screens. And we don’t stop when we’re full.

 

What we uncritically and uncontrollably devour congests our souls.

 

I believe the root crisis of our time is our disconnection from our Spirits. When we disregard our insight and inspiration and thoughtlessly follow outside orders and inner programs, we become cogs in a machine which disenfranchises ourselves and others and destroys our planet.

 

The system is daunting, but it runs on our energy.

 

If we do not cooperate, it cannot function.

 

When I feel pressured and overstimulated, simply stopping – running errands, writing e-mails, listening to messages – settles me. Thoughts become clear. My spirit breathes, like a flower emerging through a cracked sidewalk.

 

Learning to sit and wait for my past boyfriend is one victory in many battles of my revolution to repossess my mind.

 

I am screening for thoughts that are hospitable to the Spirit.


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The Right Use of Plastic

I’ve come to accept plastic, sort of reconciling myself to its place in the world. Where ever I ramble, I run into it – vacuum packed tofu at the farm stand, fluorescent-colored bottle lids on the forest floor, broken lawn chairs at the curbside. I have to face it — plastic is here to stay.

I always cringe, though, when a waitress asks if she can bring a ‘to go’ box for my leftovers. This usually means Styrofoam, a form of plastic I don’t consider a friend — nor does the planet. Once Styrofoam is set free to roam the earth, it’s anti-social — doesn’t break down, mix or mingle like wood and paper do, giving themselves to the making of soil, contributing to the life cycle.

In fact, Styrofoam may never decompose.

That it keeps to itself may be a good thing though, because when it circulates, it wreaks havoc, causing cancer. I won’t put Styrofoam out with my garbage. And when I invariably acquire a piece from a generous neighbor bringing Christmas cookies, I gracefully accept my plate then sequester it to the closet to use as a paint palette. But I won’t take home Styrofoam intentionally.

So I ask, Can I have a piece of tin foil to wrap my veggie curry in? My preference, though, is to bring home leftovers in a plastic bowl and lid I keep in a potluck kit in my trunk and am trying to get in the habit of bringing with me into restaurants.

Plastic has become a basic element of our mobile lifestyle. Light and unbreakable, it’s convenient to carry. Cheap to buy, plastic cups, forks and bottles are seen as disposables and discarded after one use.

But throwing out plastic is costly.

While a paper bag takes a month to become soil and a cardboard box around two, a plastic bag can take a good hundred years to break down. And when it does, it doesn’t blend, but stays intact as tiny particles that creep into ground water and litter oceans.

Plastic pills are taken up by plants, fish, animals and us, or just hang around. Pacific Ocean currents have collected some of our throw-aways in a swirling plastic soup the size of Texas. Fish dine on bottle caps; birds don six-pack ring necklaces. Come high tide, the sea may deliver our debris to our shore.

For now, plastic seems content to seep from containers into hot soup, leftovers and lattes. Tricksters, called BPA, sneak into bodies and mimic female hormones, messing with reproductive and nervous systems. Scientists have seen BPA handed down for three generations in fish.

Let’s face it. Plastic lingers — perhaps in protest of our disregard.

So, I limit my holdings, making friends with the few pieces I have, trying to reuse them for their duration. Once I’ve got plastic in my sight, I consider it an orphan, with nowhere to go, at least for a long time. Or, I eye it as a terrorist, holding it captive, protecting the world from its antics. And sometimes, I simply recognize its value and reuse it.

Walking my neighborhood on collection day, I rescue chairs, tables and shelves from languishing at the dump. Or, I postpone their recycling.

When possible, I recycle. But not all plastic can be recycled. And only about 5% of what can, does.

Perhaps plastic has made us lazy. Intended to make lives easier, disposables mean less washing of dishes. But our loathing of labor may have led to our scanty recycling. We’ve given our selves more work, though. Because plastic won’t play nice with nature, we’ve got to babysit and find things for it to do, lest we suffer its shenanigans.

I remember the invasion of plastics. As a child, I recoiled at inert orange, purple and pink impersonators upstaging painted clay bowls, horse hair and wooden brushes, rag dolls and cloth diapers. ‘Real’ items breathed with life forces, holding imprints of human touch. They were books to be read offering insights to life, engaging and peaceful to be around. But plastic was a soulless worker who came, got the job done and left without giving you the time of day. Cold and lifeless, it felt deadening. At home, I clung to dwindling natural objects for comfort and inspiration, rubbing my fingers along irregular surfaces, tracing circles of grain, following stitches in rows.

As a young adult, I combed stores for genuine items, to find few. Used goods shops became my treasure-trove of long forgotten wooden pails, tin watering cans and glass pitchers. I brought them home and sheltered them as a naturalist protects a preserve.

I am a purist. This is hard work. Plastic is ubiquitous.

Nowadays, plastic still stops me in my tracks. Yesterday, I shopped for cane sugar, which I use for its mildly sweet flavor and even handedness with my blood sugar level. I scoped out the bulk section of a local natural food store, hoping to scoop some cane sugar into a bag I brought and transfer it to a jar at home. There was none –only palm sugar, a new item. I placed a few crystals on my tongue. ”Not too sweet,” I thought, “but not as rich a flavor.” I moseyed around the aisle to find cane sugar sitting on a shelf encased in a hard plastic container. “Too bad!” I thought, then returned to the bulk section to take a few cups of palm sugar.

That night, I made ice cream with the new sugar but didn’t care as much for the taste. So, do I buy plastic wrapped cane sugar? Or search further hoping to find it in bulk and if not adjust to an alternative? I believe so.

Taking inventory of my trash a few years back, I gasped at the glut of plastic hummus containers, pasta wrappers, forks, spoons and water bottles. Shamed, I vowed to purchase as little as possible packaged in plastic and started making my own yogurt, crackers and tooth powder. This summer, I hope to start making shampoo and pasta and muslin sacks for bulk items and produce.

I now carry a glass water bottle and keep hard plastic plates, cloth napkins and metal cutlery in my car for use at potlucks and take out. I bring in a metal spoon when I frequent a frozen yogurt shop and have ventured into a take-out pizza parlor with my own plate. Perhaps one day this will be common.

What’s plastic good for and what’s best made with natural materials?

I have never been a disposable razor fan and have bought replaceable cartridges. While they consist of little plastic, their cost has skyrocketed. Flabbergasted, I thought back on my dad’s metal double-edged razor using a simple steel blade. To me, this is the pinnacle of razor technology.

I searched family run pharmacies then chain stores but found no such models. Finally, on line, I bought an ‘old fashioned’ razor with paper wrapped blades and no plastic! All for a fraction of the cost of a plastic one! Eureka! The process took nearly as much time as buying a car, but I’ve redirected myself to one more plastic-free path on which I more happily roam!

If I need to have plastic, I try to glean used items from the curbside or buy them in thrift shops. The fields are aplenty. Eco-architect, Richard Sowa, harvested disposed items to make a floating island– a lasagna of plastic and soil.

Shower curtains, sneakers and toothbrushes of recycled material abound. When a new plastic item is called for, recycled is my choice.

But there are things plastic should not get its fingers on. A clear bag holding thrown out food scraps is a sad sight. This imprisonment of banana peels and peach pits from organisms eager to turn them to dirt is a death sentence. I delight in delivering food remains to the ground where they can join the dance of life.
As for us, as I’ve heard said, Let’s care as much about the containers we use as the food we put in them.


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Coming Together

Whenever I push down a pedal on my bike and glide freely, I smile. I salute the breeze brushing my cheek, bounce over pebbled dirt, swirl around lines of ants and soak in sun and sky. No barrier lies between me and the world.

I prefer to walk barefoot. Strolling through my neighborhood, I step on edges of lawns, discreetly, to saturate my soles with the pulse and ply of the earth rather than the inert block of concrete.

When I drive down rural roads, long tracts of undisturbed pines and saw grass lighten my breath. My back muscles relax. If houses or stores line the way, I scan for untrimmed bushes and trees to admire their free patterns of growth. I drink in life around me.

When I drive my car down busy, developed streets, however, I’m distracted. My mind meanders through what I need to do next. I revisit a conversation with a friend, probe through a radio show with Terry Gross or Ralph Nader. Finding no provisions on the road, I divert and ramble. I am rarely present.

Today, however, I stay on the street. Sitting behind my windshield, vibrating with the hum of the engine, I meditate on the metal frame separating me from folks driving by. I’m fidgety framed in mechanization, longing for life. As my car idles and sits at a light, I turn my head to the right to glance through the closed double pane of glass insulating a fellow traveler in the next car and me. Who is she? I wonder. What’s she thinking?

I gaze at the side of her head and shoulder bobbing in beat to music, I suppose and laugh. Her eyes dart towards me, sensing my grin. We smile. A horn honks from behind. Our eyes jerk ahead. We pull from the intersection. She drives away first.

I continue observing who is riding down this six lane road with me, until I break a mental-barrier, becoming more aware of people around me than the dashboard and wheel of my sedan. Connected with what’s alive, I’m engaged.

A few weeks back, I sit isolated in my office air tight in four walls. I wrestle with a to-do list bigger than my day: e-mail parents about tuition, order workbooks, write lesson plans and organize finances. I’m trying to access my online bank account to determine my balance. My shoulders tense as I type and retype answers to security questions. Who did I put as my favorite pet — the miniature schnauzer, Arnie, who hid under the couch when thunder struck or the black lab, Josey, I wore gloves to pet because I was allergic? How did I spell the name of my first grade teacher? Was it White with an “i” or “y”? Red lettered text repeatedly reports my answers are wrong. I grimace and turn to my cell phone to press numbers on the screen, listen to recorded voices and leave words in empty space. I have no time for this, I gasp. Then search online for an e-mail address to which I type my plea on the keyboard. I receive an e-mail directing me to a website. Exasperated, I give up.

The next day, frustrated, I walk into my bank to speak to a receptionist. I am taken aback by my realization that people work at my bank. I had forgotten. The pinkness of the woman’s cheek and wrinkles on her hand stir me. Her twinkling eyes and tale of her grandson’s wedding soften my heart. Light reflects from her pearl necklace, as she eagerly turns her computer screen to face me. Her ivory, oval-shaped fingernail points to the screen, as she talks me through steps to reset my security questions. Gratitude streams through my limbs. I am rescued from a deserted island.

With a lilt in my step, I hold the bank door for a young man entering. Our eyes meet. I breathe in his dutiful demeanor and exhale my relief. I am connected to humanity and long to stay situated in its midst.

The next morning, I sit around a wooden table on the porch of the Quaker Meetinghouse in Sarasota. Live Oak and pines rustle behind Friends sitting across from me. We are musing about how to rally members of our meeting to live more sustainably. After an hour and a half dialogue, the chairperson of our committee asks us to send him an email about our thoughts on a statement about climate change. My neck tightens at the idea of booting up my computer and typing an e-mail. I want to blurt out my thoughts now, but our meeting has gone on too long. The chairperson wants to go home. I sigh and realize I crave a technology-free diet. I need to cut out the excess distancing me from others.

I text my friend Jessie to make plans to walk at Celery Fields and talk. I call Joel to set up a time to sit at his patio table and chat about community housing. When I need to type a question on my laptop to Casey in California or press the screen on my phone to speak to Hannah across town, I picture waves and wires delivering my text and voice to folks over miles I can’t tread. I keep in mind the people with whom I can relate because technology links us. And I’m grateful.

I’ve started writing letters to my two nephews and niece. They reside in Berkeley, CA, New Paltz, NY and Berlin, Germany. I have never lived close to them and want to nurture a bond. I treasure reading the swirly loops of my nephew Cali’s letter “a’s” and slanted crosses of his “t’s”, sensing his enthusiasm pressed into paper.

My niece, Elsa, who lived in a Buddhist monastery several years only communicating by letter, welcomes the exchange. She says when she first reentered mainstream life she immediately got sucked back into social media. She has since weaned herself off Facebook and Twitter. We share about how we both monitor our intake of information through cell phone and e-mail, checking messages only once or twice daily, stopping the crazy back and forth compulsion of moment to moment replies. Having felt like a cog in a machine, pushed and pulled by its rapid pace, we now set our own rhythms.

This afternoon, I sit next to seven-year old Steven. I am helping him prepare for the Florida Standards Assessment in Reading. This is his first standardized test. He hasn’t been initiated. He is unaccustomed to its demands. He sits beside me relaxed, breathing deep. I suggest he read the questions first and underline key words. I point to the first question and read, Which sentence from the passage contains a simile? What words are most important here? I ask. He rereads the question, sounding out a few words, syllable by syllable, pauses then lifts his pencil and underlines the whole sentence. I direct him to the next two questions and he does the same. We then look at the passage. He reads in a pondering pace, stopping after words to consider their meaning, relating them to his world. I am anxious for him, knowing we have much to cover, concerned he will move too slowly and fail the test. I admire his presence, though, grounded and unhurried. Is this something I want to change?

The next hour, Shirley, a high school junior, shows up texting, face down to her phone as she plops her College Board Official SATI Study Guide on the table, wraps up her reply and clicks off her phone. She stuffs it in her oversized purse and turns to me with an agitated grin. She angles herself onto the chair and flips open her book, ready for business. I really had problems with this section, she reports, glaring at a reading passage.

How have you been, I ask?

Five tests and a term paper this week, she reports. Not much time for our homework, but squeezed it in during lunch.

I point to the first question and ask her to underline key words.

Her eyes jump to the first paragraph and she explains, It says here the woman didn’t pay for her ride. I don’t get why the answer’s not “C”.

I trace my finger along the question and ask, Did you read all the words in the question?

Her hand races to another question, And this type of question really gets to me.

I nod and think to myself, Years of schooling have taught her to cut to the chase, making it hard to settle down and take stock. How do I help her find grounding? Is this what the goal is, I wonder, to subdue natural sensibilities and responsiveness and rewire students to pass multiple choice tests?

That evening, I lie in bed. Starlight streams through my window soothing and inspiring me. Relaxed, I close my eyelids. I picture neighbors, lying in their beds too, in solace. I drop the walls of our homes and see us dotting the landscape. We retreat from our laden bodies leaving behind the frenzy and mazes we’ve set and drift in a dream state, mingling with the heavens.

Dare we awaken in the morning, renewed with resolve, and returned to our separate bodies, homes and cars to build bridges that link us?