Taking Simple Steps

Sharing the process of transitioning to a more sustainable lifestyle


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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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Salve

My life as a child is manicured.

Everything is trimmed, tucked in, and shaped into correct form. Bushes lining flower beds and driveways are pruned at right angles. Identical split level ranches sit in rows of straight streets.

I long to roam pine-covered forest floors and wildflower-filled fields, but there are none. And nobody seems bothered.

Instead, I tread concrete walks and asphalt streets. Chain link fences forbid rambling. Grasses and shrubs beyond their grasp are gulped by cranes and shoved aside by bulldozers preparing ground for new houses.

I am seven and discover a small untamed spot of soil between my Long Island home and bordering flower bed bushes. There, leaves and pine needles fall and lie undisturbed. I sneak off the side of the front porch, crawl along the corridor of dirt between the living room window and bushes and sit beneath the pink dogwood within. As I trace lines in the cool, moist dirt, inspect decaying leaves and collect unevenly shaped stones, my mind is awakened by a muse, weaving rhymes and rhythms of life.

Mom calls me for dinner. I am rattled from my reverie; my senses are zapped by buzzing wires overhead feeding the hum and whistle of the dishwasher. Talk around the table is worlds from me.

There is something within us beyond what we are exposed to or trained to think, which longs for what we never see but know is possible.

I’m 11 and visiting Garvey’s Point Museum. My spirit stirs as I sit with classmates on cushioned chairs in a darkened room gaping at a lighted screen. There upon glimmer images of Native American Indians molding clay, weaving leaves, and carving wood. In the next room, I pore over glass-enclosed miniature villages displaying native women wrapped in cloths bending by moving water, the men rowing past in wooden canoes.

I ruminate over pictures of bare feet on soil in bent branched wigwams on expansive terrain as I am carried away in a clanking, hissing bus. I stare out dusty windows scanning for green — signs of life. I cringe at barbed wire fences and red and white for-sale signs encaging the few wild spots I see. And too many words, glaring neon Super Mart and flashing Shop ‘n’ Save, imposing thoughts, cold and lifeless.

There is some knowing we bring from the world beyond when we arrive, which longs to be born or resurrected on earth.

Another empty lot of nettles and oak is converted to sidewalk and stores. Beyond the busyness and bustle, I find a green corridor of wooded hills gleaming with light.

At thirty-five, I roam through matted leaves and layered pine needles, taking my daily respite. I leap between bushes and trees, twirl and gaze up at canopy-laced skies, duck and sit beneath caves of leafy undergrowth. Away from the man made world, I encounter emptiness, rife with creation. My soul settles, sorting thoughts of the day, discovering meaning and balance. Gathered, I return to daily life.

All summer, I swim in the Long Island Sound. From a wooded path in a nature preserve, I view the wide blue expanse beyond waves of sand. I remove my sandals, dig in my toes and walk to wade in the luscious cool. Diving beneath the bouncing surface I swim deep invigorated and free. I imagine Native Americans doing the same. I slip off my bathing suit to join them.

There are ways and doings that do not exist now, which we know have been and can be again.

I am fifty-two, driving down U.S. 41 in Sarasota, Florida. Store after store to horizon bombard my senses — products for every need. One could get to thinking this is all life offers and forgo essential nourishment. My soul thirsts for the sustenance of wild places. I turn on the radio to feed my mind. Folks in Los Angeles are trying to create a corridor for cougars to roam; only few can thrive in the space now allotted. I wonder, How many square miles of wilderness do humans need?

I drive to Celery Fields hill in east Sarasota to get my fill. In the twenties, the wetlands were dredged. Farmland was formed and celery was grown. In 1992, the soil depleted, heavy rains sent water from the fields to Phillippi Creek flooding nearby homes. The county bought the land to restore it to marshland for this is where the water wants to go.

The mound I wander is the pile of muck removed, sown with native trees and grasses. I sight fields to the horizon. I gaze down on saw grass and sandpipers dotting pools of water. Birders prop binoculars to spy hundreds of species that have returned. With pulsing-limbs and eager eyes, a full-bodied boy darts up the slope. I smile and wonder about the youngsters I teach who can’t sit still, focus or understand concepts such as before and after. I pray he and they find the wild space they need to learn and grow.

Sometimes society labels us defective because we cannot thrive in its constructs, which are inhospitable and need reform.

I am fifty-four, sitting again with classmates watching the film Urban Roots in Fogartyville Café. We gather at this Transition Sarasota presentation to learn how folks are coping with changing times. I stare at images of modern Detroit. Acres of once bustling manufacturing plants and apartment buildings sit barren, silent. Light beams through holes. Dandelions grow in ruins. Officials grapple with reviving the city. The hopeless languish with no livelihood. Then turn to the soil, drop seeds and grow food. Barriers broken, once isolated folks join to share fruits and vegetables, tools and methods — seeds of hope.

What seems like a tragedy becomes a remedy. Human constructs collapse. Unaware of resources beyond our making, we grasp to hold together the world once known. But it is a tumbling tower dropping us to grounds that we have neglected, lost touch. Leaving us to paths we have rejected, forgotten.

Life that has murmured on despite our makings, greets us still.