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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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