Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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Come Together

Photo 2 Coming Together

Back in the day when folks lived by tradition, we followed standards. To be part of a group meant to be alike. Looking good outside, even if barren inside, gave us stature. A college classmate’s immigrant parents personified this. Climbing the societal ladder, they bought a beautiful split level house in the suburbs but had scant belongings within, for there was little money left.

They dwelt in a shell of a home to be part of a community.

When I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, women had started breaking from tradition. Many frustrated housewives stepped from being an indistinct Mrs. to a husband to an educated professional with a career. TV’s Mary Tyler Moore modeled this. Her character was an Associate Producer of a news broadcast who rented an apartment. Besides her, I didn’t see any women living alone, owning a home, nor running a business. Now, many do. I didn’t know of men keeping house nor rearing children. Now, they do.

Women and men began following inner callings and living apart.

When I was in grade and high school, adults were always right. Youngsters were forbidden to ‘talk back’. Doing what you were told was expected. Teenagers could conform, rebel or leave.

When I became a teacher, in the eighties, children grew visible and audible. Individual needs mattered. No longer labeled ‘stupid’ and left to sit in the back, as my childhood friend, Dave, was, students who couldn’t read were identified as dyslexic, given individual education plans and an aide to read to them directions on tests.

Formerly, indistinct members of a group, individuals have peeled away from the whole.

“My way or the highway!” has become “Have it your way!” Families no longer need to choose from set TV programs at given times and perhaps argue over what to watch. Each member can pick from endless options on her own device any time. She can even produce news and entertainment on Facebook and YouTube.

We’ve become seemingly self-sufficient. My friend’s teenage son sits in his room at a computer, door closed, playing games for hours. He gets himself to the frig to grab a chicken leg and cherry soda. He moseys to the bathroom. He’s ‘good’. His mom worries he’s not fostering friendships nor getting fresh air.

And everything’s particular. Buying a shampoo in the health food store, I think, “Is my hair dry or oily? Dark or light? I want organic and no animal testing. Do I like lavender, rosemary or fragrance free?” Such complex calculations go into buying milk, bread, and cheese.

We walk narrow paths of our own preferences.

Our nation’s legislators used to hang out in D.C. Talking over drinks and dinner, Republicans and Democrats would bond across party lines. Now, many go home, hardly communicating outside of sessions. Lately, the political divide’s grown incomprehensible and we can’t reconcile our perspectives.

Caught up in our own worlds, we forget relationships.

I was telling a high school student, Alyssa, how wonderful her classmates are. “Yeah,” she said, “teenagers are angels one at a time but put ’em together; they’re a different beast. They act cool, follow the crowd; they lose themselves. Too bad we can’t be ourselves together.”

Examining a dead cell on a microscope slide merely captures a moment. Observing a live specimen separate from its surroundings cuts out critical factors of real life. When we look at the world through narrow lenses our view is hard edged. We think our 1” x 3” picture is the whole story.

In the past, personal points of view didn’t hold water. Today, truth drowns in a sea of perspectives.

I was talking to my cousin about my having a housemate. “I could never live with someone, “she said. “I like my space; I have my ways.”

“Of course, it has to be the right person,” I explain, “But I like the company. And living with someone, I see new sides of life. It can be challenging but it keeps me from getting stuck in my ways.”
Rocks rub to smooth out each other.

Folks in impoverished nations seemingly have nothing. Yet amid broken governance and infrastructure, ragged clothes and homes, meager belongings and meals, many are happier than we are. They manage life’s difficulties with each other. We struggle to escape life’s hardships. Isolated, behind bulwarks of material comfort, we forget each other.

Nowadays, we need to remember our togetherness.

We’ve been through a cultural revolution, awakening to our inner selves, relinquishing unconscious group think. But we develop ourselves not for ourselves alone. Separate, we’re mere strands. We must weave ourselves back into life’s tapestry, not in the old, self-annihilating patterns, but in new ways that value our distinct threads.

We can now come together as self-aware individuals.

Last month I went to New York to visit my elderly aunt and uncle who are like parents. In the past, I’d do whatever they wished and be upset. This time, I spoke up. Aunt Jenny loves an uncluttered home. My piling packages of tempeh and bags of leeks and carrots in the frig made her anxious.

“What are you going to do with all that food?” she asked. “There’s not enough room.”

“I’m keeping it on that one shelf. “ I explained.

She sighed and left.

That night, as I fried kale for dinner, Aunt Jenny, who keeps a spotless kitchen, hovered. Oil splattered on the stove top. “What a mess!” she gasped, “You’re ruining my stove.”

“I’ll clean it up,” I explained.

“You don’t know how to clean it right,” she cut in. “Don’t touch it.”

She turned, called Uncle Rod and they sat for dinner. I lingered then joined, holding back tears. Forks and plates clanked as we silently chewed and swallowed then cleaned up. I went for a walk stepping outside. Treading up and down hilly streets, glazed eyes taking in rhododendron and weeping willows, my heart settled. Raging rants of my aunt’s rigidity and my frustration relaxed into clear reflections of her household habits and my visitor needs. “Somehow, they could fit together,” I thought and walked back.

As I entered the kitchen, Aunt Jenny ran in from the den, crying, “I’m sorry, Donna. I’m afraid you’ll never come back.”

“No, Aunt Jenny, I will,” I explained, “But we need to find a way for us to both be comfortable.” Trembling, we grasped each other.

The next evening, I steamed carrots and leeks not to make a mess. My aunt sweetly called across the wall from the living room, “You can put a dish clothe over the rest of the stove to catch the grease.”

“Thanks, Aunt Jenny,” I replied.

We can break down and build new ways to be with each other.

It’s hard to picture getting along when in the past differences weren’t allowed. Yet, having taking space to find ourselves, we can now come together in a new place. A friend doing mission work in Africa shared, “You must enter a new land, quietly. Listen first, then speak.”

In The Education of Little Tree, an Indian boy, Little Tree, tells of his grandparents talking late at night, “Granma would say, ‘Do you kin me, Wales?’ and (Granpa) would answer, ‘I kin ye,’ it meant, ‘I understand ye.’ To them, love and understanding was the same thing,’ “(p 38)

“But,” a friend, Julie, remarked, “The older generation never talked, came to understandings and resolved issues. They just pushed things under the rug and coped.”

My family and I are renegotiating our relationship. We stumble through rocky terrain, yet we keep reaching for each other. It’s a relief to find we don’t have to give up, fight or isolate. After all,

We’re individual in so far as we’re part of a whole.

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Top Soil

In 1924, a gathering of bereft Polish farmers listened attentively to a sincere, dark haired man. Failed rye starts and weak barley plants had bred anxiety. Promises of newly introduced chemical fertilizers and pesticides had proven empty. Concerned, farmers beseeched mystic Rudolph Steiner for help. He told them to consider celestial forces.

Macro cosmic influences, not microscopic analyses, need tending.

Steiner told farmers plants thrive in soil enlivened by forces of the sun, moon and stars. And that heavenly bodies lead earth’s elements through creative processes in ways adding isolated nutrients to soil does not. To support this, he instructed farmers to make and apply homeopathic remedies to soil and plants.

Earth is part of a cosmic dance.

As farmers embraced Steiner’s indications and crops flourished. Word spread, as did what is known as Biodynamic Agriculture. When I ate my first kale and collards grown by its methods, my belly radiated with life. Sensing a vitality not found in other foods, I came to believe,

Living forces are far more important for the plant than mere substances. **

A few weeks back, friends and I sat grappling with the outgrowth of problems these farmers first faced. Raised on artificiality, we listen attentively to Steiner’s words, which we read and discuss. We note scientists now agree soil conditions determine plant health, but analytic probes into matter don’t address supersensible realities Steiner deems essential. We are eager to learn of them.

To perceive the physical, we must penetrate what lies beyond it.

A young woman, Suzy, says, “Sarasota has more farm to school gardens than any county in Florida. I lead the program and am amazed at how many students think food comes from stores. I used to worry about the world’s woes; I’m now glad to be doing my small part to connect youngsters with nature.

“In my program, students prepare soil, grow and harvest vegetables, and make and sell food. They experience the whole process. Young kids are raring to put their fingers in the earth and get dirty. It’s infuriating to see how adults get in their way. A young boy, wide eyed, ready to bite into his treasure, froze and threw it down when his mom made a face and said, “Joey, you don’t eat broccoli!”

“It’s easy to get discouraged,” I agree. “Don Hall started Transition Sarasota about 7 years ago with dreams of building sustainability in Sarasota. His efforts towards creating local currency, community housing, and tempered county growth didn’t come to fruition as quickly as he’d hoped. The culture couldn’t cultivate them. So, he nourished barren ground with a film series on climate change and alternative transportation, workshops on food preservation and cottage industries and a gleaning project to get locally grown vegetables to low income families. Don’s work helped foster the school farm program you now lead. I’m inspired to hear of the fruit of his efforts.”

By our nourishing life’s soil through cycles of time, seed dreams grow

“Yes, “she nods. “I’m a nutritionist,” she adds. I used to watch every micro nutrient, buying ‘superfoods’ made from combinations of valued elements. Over time, I’ve changed my view of food. I’ve come to see my body as a plant and what I eat, the soil. The more something is processed the less life force it has. So, I now look to eat food picked fresh from the garden.”

“Me too,” I reply, “and I, also, try to connect students with natural life.” I tell of working with sixth grader, Zach, preparing for Florida’s State Writing Assessment. He must be able to read three passages and find support for his position on a topic. After reading two during our practice, he’s underlined little evidence. We go back and reread. I quickly see Zach doesn’t understand the title or introduction of the second passage. So, we decipher meaning of words through prefixes, suffixes and roots. We name the doer and action of each sentence to find the main point. We link descriptive words to what they modify.

After several minutes, Zach sighs and looks at me, “We aren’t going very fast.”

“Yes, but we are going deep,” I explain. “There’s always somewhere to go. Sometimes it’s forward and sometimes it’s deep. You went fast before, but did you understand anything?”

“Not much, “he says.

“It seems like we’re not getting anywhere, but we’re collecting what’s happening so we can understand and go forward.”

He sits up and listens.

“It’s like the tree out the window,” I say.

He leans forward and looks.

“It has no leaves or fruit, but it’s not dead. What’s it doing? It’s going deep to gather strength to go forward in spring.”

He nods.

“Same with building a house. Do you think a house would stand if we don’t do the inside work first.”

“No, it would fall apart,” Zach says.

“But once the foundational stuff is done, you can build on it.” I add. “It’s also like eating” I continue. “Some things we have to really chew on food before swallowing.”

“Yeah, like steak,” he agrees.

“Yes, and others we can just swallow.”

“Like spaghetti,” he adds.

“Well, maybe you have to chew a little bit on spaghetti.”

“No, I just swallow it,” he states.

“Well, maybe soup or a smoothie you can just swallow,” I suggest.

As we continue our work with the third line, he comments. “We’re going deep, deep.”

“Yes,” I nod.

When we start reading the last short line, he says, “We’re not going down any more, we’re going up.”

“Yes,” I smile.

We must go deep to go far.

Friends in my study group circle smile. They know the value of inner work. They understand soil is made of decomposed matter whose elements can be reformed.

I’ve been thinking of how truncated our views are. We get most information second hand through television and the internet. Busy keeping up with what’s given, we rarely penetrate life’s surface. Like artificially fed plants, we grow depleted. But by taking in Heaven’s intuitions, meaning infuses matters.

We enliven thinking by connecting with the cosmos.

A few months back, we had a cold stretch in SW Florida. I didn’t have enough sheets to cover all plants sensitive to frost. Several days after, all the banana leaves browned, Malabar spinach vines were dark red with tawny leaves, purple leaves of the red hibiscus shriveled and dried. My yard looked dead, yet I sensed a sweet energy emanating from it.

Busied with tending to a tiling project indoors, I wasn’t able to cut off the dead branches and leaves as I had hoped, clearing and prettying things up. Weeks later when I had time to work in the yard, I noticed green banana leaves flanked the sky amidst brown ones, lively Malabar spinach shoots overtook dried leaves, small purple leaves dotted the hibiscus. Nature renewed itself.

In soil, unseen forces generate life.

As I cut the dead matter off, it occurred to me letting the garden be for a month allowed plants to draw nourishment for new growth from dying leaves.

My garden is a teacher. Each time I step from my house, I’m met by its dynamics. While beyond my understanding, they enhance my being.

Nature’s not to be controlled, but danced with in rhythm.

 

 

** Agriculture Course (Classic Edition) by Rudolph Steiner p 90


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Consumption

What I put in my mouth and engage with my mind establish well being.

Growing up, Sundays mostly meant extended family meals with relatives in Brooklyn or our Long Island home. Dinners began at two with provolone, roasted peppers and fried artichoke hearts. Then richly sauced al dente rigatoni, meatballs and sausage were passed around the linen clothed table. Cousins and I savored juicy leg of lamb, garlic tossed string beans and lemon baked potatoes until forks clanked on empty plates. To make room for dessert, we’d carry dishes to the sink, spoon leftovers into containers and nap or play Gin Rummy. Eating was a festival of togetherness.

Food was love.

By mid-meal, my belly pressed on my pants waist and I’d unsnap the band. After pastries, my brain swirled in a sugar daze. More than a Sunday event, this blood sugar roller coaster became a daily ride. Mom, however, strictly rationed desserts during the week. So, I’d sneak to the basement to forage on Edelman’s coffee cake stashed in the freezer for guests. As Aunt Mamie said, sweets call, “Come‘a to me.”’ But,

What we consume becomes our make-up.

And our bodies grew imbalanced. Sunday conversations soon centered on my aunts’ blood pressure levels and cholesterol pills. Mid-week meals closed with Mom’s mantra, “Now what can I eat?”

We were well fed but malnourished.

This was true of our soul life, too. Weekday evenings after the table was cleared and homework finished, my brother, sister and I scrambled to spots on the rug or between our folks in bed to watch TV. Night at the Movies features were favorites. Cozying up with my pillow, blanket and dear ones, I devoured Robert Redford eying down a crooked scoundrel and Jane Fonda protesting mismanaged government. Nightly, solitary heroes and heroines struggled and overcame evil. Filled with inspiration, I’d snuggle to sleep dreaming of becoming a courageous soul bringing light to the world.

What we dwell upon becomes our mindset.

As a teen, however, I began feeling empty after watching the movies. I noticed characters’ gestures and words occupying my mind. I sensed subtle promptings to be like them. Longing to be myself, engaged with others near me, I thought evenings better spent playing games, making crafts or reading a book aloud with my family. But no one budged from the television set. Engrossed in absorbing storylines, they let me do as I pleased. And I was left to choose between going off alone and being nourished or staying amidst loved ones, hollow.

Many a night I ventured into the dark house away from the glow of the TV screen to sit and read or sew. I’d pull books from dad’s shelves and ingest philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. I’d practice stitches Aunt Nini taught me and design a pocketbook. My thoughts settled, insights flowed and I’d slip to sleep in solace. But at times, I felt afraid of being on my own in a world apart.

Yet, I continued exploring. Grappling with ups and downs in energy, I was elated to discover the only health food store in town and the satisfaction of eating whole grain bread. Its density and texture fascinated me, accustomed to limp white bread. I felt fed for the first time. I became an alchemist, experimenting with sea salt and cane sugar, steaming fresh peas and carrots rather than eating mom’s canned goods. My food cravings vanished.

I soon parted ways with my family’s diet, adopting an earthier fare. Not a soul touched my dark crusted pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving except Aunt Connie. My dishes were foreign and suspect.

It was at the health food store I first saw Edith. Blue eyes sparkled beneath gray bangs. Braids dangling on her Indian embroidered shirt — she was natural. We became fast friends. I marveled at her simple home, garnishing the original pink tiled 50’s bathroom, not remodeled as most Long Island homes. Her time and energy went into enriching endeavors, like teaching yoga and folk dance classes in her basement.

Edith was a refuge of authenticity with whom my soul feasted. She was my first Long Island friend whose sustenance veered from the culture’s standard fare.

What our mind consumes becomes the lens through which we conceive.

Before long, I rented an apartment 15 minutes from Edith and my folks, in Huntington. There, I walked or biked to town. I gave away my TV, carefully choosing what news I read or listened to and what music and literature I took in. I devoured folk concerts at the Huntington Folk Society and in the park down the street. I delighted in swirling contradances with live fiddle and flute music in a hidden wooden barn.

I engaged with people in real experiences which fed me.

Over the years, I’ve converted from buying organic avocados shipped from Mexico, to locally grown bananas brought to the farmer’s market, to picking guavas in my yard.

I’ve stretched from attending dollar movies to live concerts and community dances to hosting salons and craft nights at home.

I’ve discovered new facets of local fare.

Now more than ever, we can consume stories, words, and images, through digital media, nonstop, coming from who knows where. Random sequences of Bart Simpson, “Just Do It!”, and juicy burgers on buns stream from screens to our minds. I wonder how kids today navigate such cacophony. I’m saddened by their scanty dealings with ants, clovers and creeks. They grow up deprived of watching tadpoles, listening to crickets and climbing oaks to garner life’s ways.

Lack of contact with the real world creates soul hunger.

I’ve found great solace in stepping barefoot on the damp soil each morning to gather collards, strawberries, and spearmint.  Using a biodynamic calendar, I plant seeds and harvest vegetables when cosmic energies are beneficial.  Wholesomeness sings in my belly – vitality is nourishing.

Earth’s life forces become our own.

Tomato plants that I’ve not sown sprouting in my yard convey life’s give and take from unseen sources. Banana and papaya trees feeding on compost show me no accomplishment is made alone. Each nourished by earth and sky adds its part to creation.

There are no lone heroes or heroines saving us all.

We each have access to nature and spirit. Cable and cost aren’t needed to tune in. Abundantly, unprocessed food for our bodies and souls is present.

 


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Changing the Current

News often reports problems: floods in Houston, wildfires in northern California, an earthquake in Mexico City.

 

I, too, tend to chase concerns. Like a mad hatter, I deal with to critters eating my blueberries, water pooling in my yard and my gutter filling with pine needles. Once a problem’s gone, another pops up like a duck at a rifle range and I face it.

 

When I moved into my house in Florida, I was concerned with high energy use during sizzling summers. I decided to buy fans knowing they cool air up to 4 degrees and save fuel and money. After weeks of internet searches, scores of trips to stores and varied phone calls, I bought four tower fans then quickly checked them off my list and started looking for a high efficiency washing machine. The fans soon became part of the furniture, used but off my mind.

 

What’s doing well generally goes unnoticed.

 

Sitting at my desk one quiet evening, I relax my neck muscles and adjust my focus. I feel a soft breeze caressing my back; I admire subtle shades of rust and amber on a vase my friend made me; I appreciate that texting is helping friends and I arrange plans for a visit to the Warm Mineral Springs. I tune to the present, wondering, why is it?

 

Trouble typically captures our attention.

 

I decide to shift. Rather than primarily addressing problems, I’ll nurture dreams. Gandhi taught noncooperation: neither fighting nor fleeing wrong, but planting truth, goodness and beauty, among it.

 

While tending to what needs amending, we can cultivate what longs to exist.

 

As a kid, I loved making whirlpools with friends in my classmate Christina’s above ground swimming pool. All five of us would walk the circumference in one direction forming a great current. Soon, the water pulled us gleefully riding its circle. We couldn’t stand still if we wanted. This took swimming out of the current, holding the pool’s rim and bracing limbs with all our strength. When we chose to change course, with great effort we’d slowly turn the opposite way and take tiny, shaky steps against the pull. In time, our tread grew steady and turned the tide.

 

We are each born with seed dreams to uplift life. The mainstream draws us in its customary course if we’re unaware or unable to do otherwise. Cultivating new currents takes resolve and attentiveness.

 

The established way vociferously presses forth. New streams silently invite our creation.

 

As a young woman, I dove into a whirlpool unaware of muscles needed to hold my own nor change its course.  Fresh out of college in my first teaching job at Susan B. Anthony Middle School, I was disturbed by the bleakness of this NYC ghetto school’s barred windows, metal detector and security guard. I aspired to bring light.

 

Early on the new principal, Mr. Anise, sent me and 4 other newbies to a workshop on the “Being Healthy” curriculum which taught positive communication, conflict resolution and healthy eating.  Its greatest enthusiast, I was chosen to promote the program to staff. At the podium, singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as my opening, I spied slouched teachers dispersed in the shadowy auditorium murmuring, “Oh, brother.” From then on as we passed in the halls pairs of seasoned teachers snickered, “What does she know about teaching these kids?”  After all, Ms. Bougournia from Jamaica warned students the first day of school she knew Voodoo so don’t mess with her. Mr. Jensen escaped with a class each Wednesday on a field trip. Ms. Stein did who knows what behind closed doors, kept impeccable order and taught math. The “Being Healthy” curriculum whimpered and perished, but skills I gleaned thrived. As I pulled contentious students from cafeteria to the hall directing them to make “I” statements, tensions melted and peace emerged with a hand shake.

 

My second year, Mr. Anise rewarded me with further training and a coveted pull out Reading Program. I led small group discussions on Great Books winning me more enemies among peers stuck managing throngs of troubled teenagers. I imbued communication skills in my class exchanges, pressing against the school’s current in small ripples, not altering its course. My light fluttered amid the teacher next door cursing under his breath, students swarming around fights in the halls and the graffiti concrete yard stripped of new basketball nets. One day, as I trudged through dank halls during planning period drowning in desolation, a voice thundered in my head, “Stop trying to change the tide alone. Join others going in your direction.”

 

Before being overcome, I lifted my limp spirit and applied elsewhere. New Principal, Mr. De Metri, swept me to the brighter shores of Marie Curie Middle School hiring then fighting for me as my old principal threatened I’d lose my certification should I pull out of the torrent. He felt it unfair having invested so much in me, but I couldn’t alter its course.

 

A year later, resuscitated, I realized my good fortune at now teaching in the best district in the city. “You died and went to district 26,” Miss Grace assured me in the teacher’s lounge. She was right. Here, I led the Peer Mediation Program, taught conflict resolution and infused art, music and drama into history and language arts lessons. I coalesced with colleagues in a gurgling flow. This showed me,

 

If we press in the direction of our calling, while adverse circumstances may persist, a new course will open.

 

Bringing to life what longs to emerge involves diverting from the mainstream. We must pull from its current to still ourselves and listen deeply. True literacy is learning to read the scripts of our lives. While teaching, I fasted and meditated weekends to calm anxieties, recognize and release misconceptions and realign myself. These personal quests benefit the world.

 

Contemplation is a political act.

 

As free individuals we can find and establish our place in the dance of creation. With like-minded souls, then join forces to redirect culture’s course.

 

Civilization needs our life streams to regenerate its ways.

 

When I think about the destruction of hurricane’s Harvey, Irma and Maria, my heart aches for lost lives, communities, wildlife and human made structures. Much needs tending.

 

If we continue business as usual, all our attention, resources and energy may very well be spent on cleaning up messes.

 

Now more than ever we need to press our dreams into life.


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Breathing Room

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

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

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

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

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

Served up lifeless imperatives, our souls run on empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We preserve living truth past its shelf life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

 


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Word’s Worth

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Words matter.

 

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

 

I’m watchful of words.

 

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

 

Words are powerful instigators.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Words define worlds.

 

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

 

Words build barriers or bridges.

 

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

 

Real words stick.

 

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

 

Reading broadens our world. Silence deepens it.

 

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

 

A glut of information causes indigestion.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Everybody’s words flavor the cultural cuisine.

 

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

 

Wisdom and Spirit of the universe!

… from my first dawn

Of childhood didst thou intertwine for me

The passions that build up our human soul;

… with enduring things,

… purifying thus

…feeling and … thought,

… until we recognize

A grandeur in the beatings of the heart.

Words are stars we follow to tomorrow.

 

May ours nourish common good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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What Lies Beneath

 

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

 

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

 

So too, beliefs and impulses influencing me remain concealed.

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Why thank us?” I ask.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Without inner activity, no outer work can be done.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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