Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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Mending Our Fabric

Things are falling apart, perhaps, because we’ve taken them apart.

Dissecting life has left us fragmented.

We now fend for ourselves.

We build stores and make products, for private gain, not communal benefit.

Driving down SR 70 last week, I spotted a bright, new, bustling gas station across the street from the one I frequent, now vacant. Saddened, I turned the corner to see bulldozers unearthing clusters of pine for new house construction. Roots exposed, soil upturned, lush and lovely landscape lay desecrated. I averted my eyes, to see for sale signs sitting a front deserted homes.

We’ve no coherency”, I whispered.

As kindergartners, we are introduced to our friendly neighborhood helpers, the storekeeper, farmer and nurse. We playact in partnership, benefiting all; then we grow up to drop our cooperation, enter a race, struggle to be on top, have the most and look the best. We grapple with the illusion of having and doing it all.

Jesus said we’re members of one body, not all hands nor eyes, but many parts. How is it we’ve lost sight of our membership?

Writer Helena Norberg-Hodge tells of living with an ancient community, the Ladakhis of Little Tibet. As a westerner, she’s amazed at their intactness, built on the Buddhist concept of sunyata, or emptiness.

A native explains, “Take anything, like a tree…you tend to think of it as a distinct, clearly defined object, and on a certain level it is. But on a more important level, the tree has no independent existence; rather, it dissolves into a web of relationships. The rain that falls on its leaves, the wind that causes it to sway, the soil that supports it – all form a part of the tree. Ultimately, everything helps make the tree. It cannot be isolated. This is what we mean,” He says, “when we say things are empty, that they have no independent existence.”

As a teacher, I see children brimming with expectation, eager to cooperate in learning grown up skills, longing to fit in and take their place. Their desire to take part in the dance of life is innate.

Yet, as young adults their soft, warm aspirations are often uprooted as cold, hardened systems bulldoze and displace them with the real world of competition and control. This is our modern initiation rite.

Our economic, healthcare and education systems fall apart, precisely, because they’re not built on the wholesome ideals youth bring to bear.

Like an adolescent rejecting the guidance of ancient and natural ways, western civilization has tried to remake the world. Yet, our crusade of industrial growth has created “wasteland rather than wonderland, Thomas Berry says. We now search through rubble for reasons and restoration.

When folks were farmers and crafts persons, work sprung from basic needs. Beans had to be picked, wood chopped and cotton spun. A full belly, warm hearth, and fresh linens were work’s goal and reward. Work flowed from and into life.

New-fangled factory-modeled jobs raised efficiency and productivity, giving us material wealth kings have not known, yet shredding our social fabric. Folks were lured, or wrenched, from self-sufficient, interpersonal homesteads and communities to dependence on the impersonal marketplace, where the number of e-mails and phone calls answered per day, not the eyestrain nor mental clarity of the receptionist, matters. Earning money has become our only reward and is never enough.

People need to feel they make a contribution to their community,” Psychologist Barry Schwartz says. He tells of Yale researchers’ surprise when interviewing hospital janitors whose job description includes dusting lamps, washing windows and other mundane acts. Yet, custodian Mike stopped mopping the floor because Mr. Jones was out of bed walking up and down the hall to build his strength. And Charlene ignored her supervisor’s order and didn’t vacuum the visitor’s lounge while family members were taking a nap. These custodians wove their work to the well being of patients.

Yet, in some jobs it takes heroic efforts to do the right thing amidst expected requirements.

An anonymous teacher confessed in The Sun magazine’s Reader’s Corner she’s forced to follow curriculum she knows is inaccessible to some students. Yet, she’s paid based on her students’ test scores. So, she calls parents of those who can’t keep focused, tells them of their child’s issue and strongly suggests their children get tested and medicated. Once done, she manages her class and meets state standards.

Desperate to meet the bottom line, we drop hold of each other.

Evolutionary biologist William Muir studied the productivity of chickens. He watched two flocks, one of average and one of prolific chickens, super chickens. The super flock was re-chosen each generation for the top breeders. After six generations, the average chickens were plump and fully feathered; egg production had greatly increased. Yet, all but three of the super chickens had pecked each other to death, contending to be the best.

But for the past 50 years, we’ve run most organizations and some societies are run along the super chicken model,” says sociologist Barbara Heffernan. Yet, studies show the most productive groups are those whose members are sensitive to each other’s needs and allow everyone a voice and let none loaf.

Our relationships matter.

Mathematician Michael Schneider says we look around and see discrete objects, while the ancient mathematical philosophers saw processes. To us cosmos means outer space, “a huge room filled with disconnected things”. To the Greeks, kosmos meant embroidery, “an orderliness and harmony of woven patterns” with which the universe unfolds.

We think and act as if we’re separate, while we’re infinitely connected.

It’s time we grow into this awareness and weave our frayed threads back into the fabric of life. As we sit at our desks, alone, unraveled, we can think of the person whose life our work affects and keep them in sight. When we shop for clothes, we can consider, “Under what conditions did someone sew these seams?” and only buy what’s manufactured humanely. When we choose a store to frequent, we can ask, “How well are the cashier and stock people treated and paid”,and put our money into organizations that build well-being among staff.

We can calculate real costs, when we look for the best buy.

Economists must factor social, and environmental, well-being into gross national product to accurately reflect the state of our nation.

For, what we do to and for each other matters. After all, we’re woven into each other’s world.

 


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Conserving Our Humanity

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

    

Such soul succulence is forsaken with speed.

 

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

He was unmoved.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

      

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

 

Someday I’ll just crack, she added.

 

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

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

 

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

 

Don’t we all feel this way at times?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

What we uncritically and uncontrollably devour congests our souls.

 

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

 

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

 

If we do not cooperate, it cannot function.

 

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

 

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

 

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


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The Right Use of Plastic

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

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

In fact, Styrofoam may never decompose.

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

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

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

But throwing out plastic is costly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Coming Together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How have you been, I ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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New Family Community

Last Sunday, a mixed age group of church friends and I are sitting around after service discussing where we and our elderly parents might live as we age.

“Years ago the Cooper family extended across Franklin County,” Mike, a recently retired professor, explains. “Then my mom and dad decide to become missionaries and leave for Kenya. This starts a trend. My wife and I have lived in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida to follow our work. My kids live in Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and Vietnam pursuing dreams. We are spread across the world.”

“I grew up in Ohio and left for Costa Rica in seventy-seven to join the Peace Corps,” Steve, a middle-aged business owner, adds. “I have no relations or close friends left in Ohio. Most of my friends are here in Sarasota. My kids live in New York and Minnesota. I don’t want to live in either place; I can’t take another snowstorm! My son and daughter don’t want to move down here. Besides, they have kids and lives of their own and can’t pick up and go!”

The rest of us share similar stories.

“It is best to have a power of attorney that lives near you,” Mike’s wife, Melissa, a retired accountant, shares. “Our daughter wants us to come live with them in Pennsylvania. I am not sure if that’s where we belong. Honestly, I don’t know where I belong.”

We grow silent.

Melissa continues, “I believe we are in a dilemma. We have no sense of home. “

Most of us nod in agreement.

I wonder about growing up watching my Aunt Stella care for my maternal grandfather in the Brooklyn brownstone her family lives in and inherits from him. I share about my dad’s mom, Katherine, who lives out her life alone in the Long Island home in which she raised the youngest of her nine kids. As she ages, uncles and cousins visit from around the island, checking in, bringing groceries and paying bills.

I would visit each Friday on my way home from work. During my last visits, as she lay in a hospital bed in her room, cared for by a visiting nurse, she bemoans feeling weak. She can’t get up and make me lentil soup but hopes she can next time. I thank her and smile.

One day, however, I tell her the truth, “Grandma, you are not going to get up and cook for me anymore. It is your turn now to rest and let others care for you.”

Two days later, she passes.

I tell how over the years aunts and uncles from both sides of my family move in with or live in duplexes attached to their children’s Staten Island and Long Island homes and are cared for in turn. Recently, however, my Aunt Trudy is the first to enter and die in a health care facility. Her only son, Cal, fears he can’t give her proper care.

“I want to go home!” Aunt Trudy uncharacteristically yells at Cal each time my cousin enters the room to visit.

After a few months, however, Aunt Trudy can no longer speak to me on the phone. Machines help her breathe and feed her liquids. My mom and dad visit, enter her room and think they are in the wrong place. They don’t recognize her; she is a skeleton. She is barely audible, but surviving, unsettled, until her last breath.

We shift in our seats and dispute the value of extended life support. We share fears of being left alone in a facility to wither.

I tell of my friend Carol misplaced in an Alzheimer’s facility by her son, who lives out of town. After a year-and-a-half, she finally convinces her doctor and him to transfer her to a more suitable assisted living facility. I visit her each month to take her out.

Last week, we face each other across a table. Her hand shakes as she lifts a spoonful of Greek lemon soup to her lips. She falters to find the name of the ailment that leads her to do so, smiling sweetly, assuring me many elderly suffer like this. As we stroll to the car after eating, I notice her gait steadier; physical therapy has helped.

“I don’t like living this way,” she murmurs from the passenger seat as we return to the facility. “I told my son I want to live in an apartment and he grew silent. I hung up on him.”

Melissa informs us, “They say you need to save up $350 thousand per person for three years of end of life care.”

The group gasps and groans.

“How have folks done it before?” I ask and then answer my question. “People took care of their own.”

“Most of the expenses are during the last three years of life,” Linda, a middle-aged home care nurse, explains. “Before that it is mostly bathing, dressing, feeding, and so on. This takes a big commitment from somebody. It is hard work that’s tiring!”

“Who’s going to do that these days?” Paula, architect and writer, responds. “Women have jobs outside the home and want to keep them!”

“My grandparents had five kids who took turns taking care of them,” Pete, a retired construction worker adds.

“We didn’t have enough kids,” Melissa and Mike turn to each other and laugh!

“I have a dream,” elder member John states. ”I imagine a community with houses on a shared property with a common gathering space and community gardens. I check the papers daily. Last week, I looked at 20 acres in Arcadia.”

“Yes,” I chime in. “People of all ages, elderly, middle age and youngsters, living together, with elders contributing as they can — their experience and abilities valued. I heard of someone traveling the world to study communities where folks live the longest. In these places, people don’t retire or stop meaningful work. They’re part of a community, contributing in ways they can. This is more life-giving than institutional health care. “

“My mom loved living in an assisted living facility,” Paula adds. “For the first time in her life, she didn’t have to shop, cook or clean. She was in heaven! And thank God. I had three kids to raise and responsibilities at work. I didn’t have energy to make sure she took her pills or time to drive her to doctors. Besides, we tried living in community in the seventies. It didn’t work. There were too many personalities. For example, we shared a car and a lawn mower. The car was supposed to be left in our neighbor’s driveway, the lawnmower in our garage. We got home late one night and left the car in our driveway. Big trouble! Plus I am too old for this. It takes a lot of energy!”

John continues, “I have energy for this!”

“Me too,” I add. “Friends and I have been talking about forming a multi-generational, cooperative household whose property can be passed on in posterity to its members. Years ago, folks handed down homes and land, keeping them in the family. Nowadays, we work hard to build something only to dissemble it before we die. We need something lasting in which put our energy. We need a new possibility.”

“The younger generation is living communally,” Steve adds. “My nephew, Joe, just graduated from college. He and his friends share a house partly because they can’t afford their own places but mainly they don’t want to live alone taking care of their own stuff. They share vehicles and take turns cooking, shopping, and gardening. They have time to hang out and do what matters to them! Joe works part time then makes performance art with his buddies on issues like racial injustice. ”

“Neat!” John responds. “I would love to live around creative souls like this!”

“That’s all well and good,” Paula states, “but young people listen to loud music and stay up all hours. Young kids run around and make noise. I like my fifties and older community. Here they come and go.”

Linda asks, “Can we, as church, simply look out for one another, like family, while our relatives are far away?”

“I like the idea of a duplex,” Pete says, “with someone younger living next door to help out with rides and meals. When I was fresh out of college, not knowing what to do, I moved to Texas to live in a room with my elder aunt and uncle. I mowed the lawn, collected yard waste, and ran errands, whatever they needed. Isn’t there someone who could do this for me?”

We pause and ponder.

“I think we are at a turning point, “I say. “For a few generations now, folks have left family, friends and land loosening bonds to follow an inner call.”

“Jesus said, if someone comes to me but cannot free himself from his father and his mother, from his wife and his children, from brothers and sisters, yes, even from his own soul, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26-27

Perhaps we have been on spiritual journeys and now it’s time to come together, in new ways,’ I add, “forming intentional families and communities.”

“Yes,” Linda shares, “Have you heard about Denmark group homes?”

“No,” Steve responds, “but I’ve heard of retired folks downsizing to share a house together, splitting responsibilities and resources.”

“My friend lives in an assisted living coop in Minnesota, near her daughter, and loves it,” Paula says.

“So many options to consider!” Pete concludes.


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Local Culture

I love to share my poetry and songs. In this blog, I share my journey and vision. I feel it right to connect in these ways with those in my community whose lives mine naturally touches. This is enough.

Getting to this point has been a process, however. Spring of my senior year of college, my roommate, Erica, invited me to join her and her boyfriend, Cliff, at the Speak Easy on MacDougal Street in New York City. Cliff knew I had been writing songs and insisted I take his turn at the open mike. After singing, “I Want to Be Part of the Free Things in Life,” the emcee approached me and scheduled a gig date for a few months later.

I was delighted about my debut and fascinated by this novelty, the open mike. In the ensuing months, I frequented the Speak Easy to soak in words and melodies of musicians. I found even weak voices, staggering strums, and lipid lyrics moved my heart. As matter of fact, I preferred authentic sharing composed with grit and rawness to that of polished, studied performers. Musicians’ sincere souls touched mine.

As I became involved in the music scene, my mind struggled with undercurrents of ambitious urgings to ’Make it big’ and ‘Get picked up by a record label.’ The prospect of being part of the music industry distressed me. Its moneyed decisions fed by popular demand could lead to compromise, diverting from my path. I retreated to hold my ground and build a lifestyle consistent with words in my lyrics.

For me, music is a way to meet beyond space and dwell together in deep truths. It is food for the soul.

I think a lot about art. I see it nourishing daily life, providing meaning by enfolding realities that can be grasped and reflected upon. I dream of art expressing values that can be recollected and woven into communal thoughts and actions, bringing them to life. Art, not left to professionals and critics, viewed as better than us, but made by honest, soulful human endeavor, “ for you and me,” as Woody said.

So, I put art to task. My colleague, Sharon, depressed and recovering from surgery, is lying in bed in rehab. I sit by her side, strum my guitar and sing, “When I walk among the trees, I hear your whisper in the breeze, I hear you calling gently, please. Remember I am here.“ Her eyes twinkle.

I gather friends at my Sarasota home on All Soul’s Day. Janice passes around a photo of her nine-year-old, Sally, and shares the story of Sally comforting her younger brother as she faces her own death.

During Advent, Arthur reads a poem of his struggle through the darkness of divorce toward the light of new life. We sit around my coffee table in candle-lit dusk and nod in empathy.

I have been told that in olden and native cultures, art is imbued in practical and collective living. Evenings, folks sit by fire or on a porch telling tales and singing songs. Saturday nights, communities dance in a barn. A farmer fiddles, the barber plays bass and grandma sings soprano. I have heard African postal workers stamp letters in rhythm and song. A leader calls a chant and the group echoes, thumping postage on letters, in beat. I have read that Aboriginal healers intone broken bones back into alignment.

Participating in folk culture uplifts and unites.

 

When I lived in Asheville, North Carolina, I looked forward to the monthly Playback Theatre performances. Here, an audience member comes on stage to share a personal story. The director, sitting next to her, evokes nuances inquiring, “How did you feel when your boyfriend stomped boot prints on your newly painted porch?” or “Where did you hide when your drunken father fumbled home late Christmas Eve and knocked over the tree?” The boyfriend, boot prints, father and Christmas tree are assigned to be played by four plain dressed actors, who adorn themselves in colored scarfs and set the scene by arranging crates. The actors then perform, or ‘play back’, the event for the audience. Through this storytelling and improvisation, I realize the folks around town and I have much in common.

Local culture grounds me in the here and now.

In Sarasota, Florida, I feed on the local art.

On Wednesday nights, singers, strummers and tappers of all levels meet at somebody’s home, in Sarasota or Bradenton. Apple cider, hummus, anecdotes and harmonies pour into the night, as singer-songwriter Jim Glover teaches Woody Guthrie’s little-known verse,

As I was walking, I saw a sign there,

On the sign it said no trespassing,

But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’,

That side was made for you and me!

 

Sundays, Covenant Mennonite Church resounds with song, but has no choir or audience. A member stands before the congregation, directs us to #124 in the purple hymnal, waves her hand in beat, hums a note and we burst into four parts of ‘My Soul Cries Out’.

At Fogartyville Community Media & Arts Center, monthly contra dances host local and visiting bands. The resonance of banjo, fiddle and mandolin intertwine as a caller leads us to circle and swing. Tones drone; we dancers rouse into a trance of patterns and swirls weaving up and down the floor greeting and twirling each other into oneness.

There is no us and them, just us.

I search for local treasures.

“You introduced me to Sunni Bunni,” Melody exclaims as we meander into a locally owned whole food organic restaurant, “I am going to introduce you to Simon’s!”

And I am glad she did. We are now regulars to Sunni Bunni, savoring its yummy frozen yogurt with live active cultures. Now, I find Simon’s nourishes me with the authenticity of our waitress, suggesting millet bread with our tofu & red pepper scramble, a combination she loves, and I plan to come back for. I enjoy the owner walking by tables smiling ‘hi’ in a down to earth, friendly manner. I ramble around the restaurant after eating, admiring displays of whole grain latticed berry pie crusts and gluten-free muffins. What draws me is the care for health and good taste I sense—not aspiring to becoming a big chain with a big name, doing big business, but attention to bringing quality to folks here and now.

“I don’t know what I would do without Simon’s,” Melody sings as we weave our way through the parking lot after breakfast. “

I also feel more at home in Sarasota knowing Simon’s is in town.

I love locations and people that feed my heart and soul, as well as body.

As I drive down Bahia Vista Street, a full-bearded, suspender-bearing Amish man rides his three-wheel bicycle across the road. Intrigued by his character, I gaze at his deliberate motion, as I break to allow him to pass. Meanwhile, I keep an ear to WSLR’s Jumping Mullet’s report on city council’s consideration of the homeless. My heart engages their discussion as I wonder about three itinerant men who hang out each day at the library where I tutor reading and watching videos. As I accelerate forward, the news story wraps up with local bard CC Carter crooning, “We are the 99!” I sway in rhythm and reflect as I scoop a mouthful of homemade yogurt from my friend Pam Marwede’s beautifully painted and thrown bowl sitting on my lap.

I relish my neighbors. I long to connect further with them, here and now, nourishing each other with our creative gifts, helping one another on our journeys.


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Mission

I walk to my car after a presentation by Peace Corps volunteers. Tales told of rehabilitating lives, landscapes and structures in far off, impoverished countries get me thinking, What is my calling?

I recollect a story of Mother Teresa hearing of a Hindu family who had not eaten for a long time. She brings them rice and finds children with eyes shining with hunger. Their mom takes the rice and goes out. When she returns, Mother Teresa asks, “Where did you go? What did you do?”

The woman answers, “They are hungry also.”

And who are they? — A Muslim family.

Mother Teresa beams as the children and mom radiate with joy and peace on account of the mom’s love. Mother Teresa doesn’t bring more rice that evening because she wants them, Hindus and Muslims, to enjoy sharing, knowing this will feed a greater hunger.

I probe my pockets for keys, awestruck by this family’s love, pondering the essence of being poor.

Mother Teresa observed, “The spiritual poverty of the West is much greater than the physical poverty of India. In the West millions suffer terrible loneliness and emptiness, feel unloved and unwanted. People are not hungry in the physical sense, but in another way, knowing they need something more than money, yet not knowing what it is.”

I unlock my door acknowledging there are deeper wells to draw from than physical founts; poor folks are the blessed ones.

I bend into my car pondering the loneliness and emptiness in the West to which Mother Teresa points. I struggle to keep connected with others amidst independent living arrangements and time-consuming schedules. I grapple to keep afloat in a flood of belongings and groundswell of tasks. Mother Teresa speaks my mind, What do I do about my spiritual poverty amidst physical excess?

My work is right here.

I sit behind the wheel, mindful of my solitude. I’ve worked hard to create a natural space, just right for me, full of organic cotton, heirloom tomatoes and farmer writer Wendell Berry tales. Yet, I remain preoccupied with e-mails, paperwork and organizing. Writing unending lists of chores to do, struggling to squeeze in time to talk – much less sit – with friends and family.

I fasten my safety belt thinking, the American dream promises if I buy and own more, I make progress. And I do in a sense, when I don’t have enough. But past a point of sufficiency, I bloat my house with a closet clogged with shoes for any occasion, a pantry packed with enough pasta to feed the neighborhood and a table top buried beneath piles of magazines I never look through. At this point, for me, having less is moving forward.

I start my car’s engine and hear Jackson Browne swoon:

These times are famine for the soul while for the senses it’s a feast…

And there’s a God-sized hunger underneath the laughing and the rage (Looking East)

 

I drive home determined to better feed my soul and cut down on physical preoccupation. As cars race past on the expressway, I wonder what’s essential and what’s unnecessary, best to let pass by. The thought of hungry folks, scantily clad in tin shacks helps me trim the fat. A bowl of rice and beans, a hat and coat, walls and a roof are basically what I require.

I drive past another newly constructed mall thinking, I need to pare down.

As I prepare to change lanes, I glance in my rear view mirror remembering as a teen feeling overwhelmed and saddened in stores. Sprawling selections of milk ­- one percent, no fat, low fat and whole – beside aisles of shampoo, laundry detergent and toilet paper elicit endless decisions about trivial pursuits. Over time, though, I grow concerned about choosing just the right item for me and quiver between buying green leaf lettuce and romaine. Now I see that getting tied up in meaningless decisions eats up my energy and deprives my soul of simply being satisfied and grateful for food.

As I signal and look to the right, I remember living in Asheville, North Carolina. In this mecca of natural and cultural beauty, my greatest joy is visiting nursing homes to sit and sing with the elderly. Amid empty halls and vacant rooms dotted with card tables, pale, languid faces stare into space. My guitar strings shimmer. Heads and voices lift together in song: “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” Eyes connect in bare stillness, souls unite. I am fed beyond the sustenance of Jackson Browne’s lyrics and Mother Teresa’s tales.

Real connections feed me.

I turn off the AC, roll down the window and sense the heat of the day sting my cheek. Sweat strolls down my rib. A flock of ibis glide by in formation. Hip hop pulsates from a Corvette speeding by. Less buffered, I am in touch.

I exit and U-turn, forgoing thrift store shopping to drive to a hospice care facility and be with my 58 year old friend Richard, spending his last days alone. Gaunt and listless, plodding behind his walker, he beckons me to a garden. We shuffle between palms, love grass and hibiscus and sit on a wooden bench. I slow my breath to settle stirring thoughts and be with him. He soaks in his surroundings and utters labored syllables spelling out his surrender and acceptance. Serenity fills the air. We inhale and exhale the lightness of being. And embrace our goodbyes.

Awakened to the pulse of life, I stroll to my car.

I’ve been isolated and absorbed, caught in a web of material comfort and ease. Casting it away and reaching out to others, I come alive and nourished.

I sit behind the wheel and leave the door ajar. Sun illumines my face. I reach for my calendar and pore over tasks of the week weighing their importance. I make a list of names of folks in need.

Budding branches reach to the sun. When laden with fruit, they bow to the ground. I have more than I need. I must bend down and offer my fill. When I am emptied, I will receive more.

Beside my parked car a red jacaranda sways in the wind. I am reminded of Carol, once vibrant, glowing with life. Now 76, she is trapped in an Alzheimer’s care facility. She got lost driving, couldn’t find her way home. Her son flew down from Philadelphia for the weekend, sold her red hybrid Honda, ruby love seat and crimson-doored house — without her consent. He then placed her in a facility for safe keeping because her memory is weakening. I call her to make plans to visit.

I drive home and clear the cooler, umbrella and beach chair from my back seat to make room for Carol’s wheel chair.

Days later I travel across town. As I wheel Carol through the facility, we watch two dazed women gazing at a flittering TV screen and a man wandering, giggling into space. I notice Carol’s bold demeanor is dulled after a few weeks’ immersion in this muted world. I pull open my passenger door. She struggles to lift her troubled body up holding onto the window frame then shuffles onto the seat. Looking forward she pronounces, I want my car back.

I nod in silence, sit in the driver’s seat and maneuver our way out of the parking lot. Slowly, grasping for words, Carol composes the landscape of delusional characters with whom she dwells, from whom she seeks relief. My heart sinks, knowing she does not belong here, yet aware there is little I can do but take her out for brief respites and listen.

Over the ensuing months, I carve space in my schedule to be with Carol and help carry her load. Her forbearance, persistence and composure are gifts to me.

Perhaps life is not an upward climb, but a spiral trajectory, looping between loss and gain, need and plenty, weakness and strength – both essential to growth and well-being.

One year later, through determination and will, Carol persuades her doctors and son to place her in a more suitable assisted living facility. Our world is set aright. My heart resounds, Hallelujah!

I am driving to Salvation Army with a backseat of boxes containing the tofu maker I’ve never used, old Yes magazines and dusty snow boots. I think of my friend Joe, on disability, unable to work. His trust fund ran out and he can no longer pay rent. He’s terrified he’ll be homeless as New York’s frigid winter approaches. Ashamed, I squirm, I’m here in Florida, grappling to shed frivolity, while Joe is scuffling to find a friend’s couch to sleep on to keep him off the icy streets.

What can I do to help him get what he needs? How can I free myself from excess, which leaves others without enough? How can we come from our separateness to share?

 

Excerpt of Mother Theresa’s address at the United Nations’ “International Conference on Population and Development”, held in Cairo on Sept 5 -13, 1994