Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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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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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.