Hunting Literacy and Basket Weaving

Oh the things you do for “free” money.

Thankfully I’m now employed (!!!) but I got the fun task of going to a 3 hour unemployment sadness charade this week. Supposedly a “training” opportunity, what I really understand it to be was a check-in to make sure you’re a real human and not defrauding the government.

While I don’t particularly mind doing the mountains of paperwork, calls and odd requirements of unemployment, this meeting brought into sharp relief how hard it is for a lot of people out there.

The closest Career Center is about an hour away in Lewiston, the closer ones having closed due to budget cuts. Some people in the room traveled over 2 hours to get there.

As the overly peppy coordinator, Patty, went around the room asking us our biggest “challenges,” I couldn’t help thinking: YOU.

Maine is a seasonal economy, but has also suffered huge company closures recently. The answers from my fellow unemployed were varied and saddening: “I’m just afraid,” “I don’t think I can earn a living wage anymore,” “I only worked for one company for 20 years, now what?” “I’m old! They look at me and immediately say no,” “I really need health insurance and no one will give it to me.”

The worst part was the immediate and visceral paternalism with which a lot of these concerns were met. When the Adult Ed woman came in, she looked at the room and focused on GED being our biggest need (most people in the room had multiple degrees of varying types), and then suggested we take classes to “widen our range.”

This woman assessed this group and suggested “our classes, all under $100, like Hunting Literacy and Basket Weaving.”

I would’ve laughed had I not been so offended.

How in the hell is any of this actually helping me get a job? How are the judgments you’ve made just by looking at this group helping the confidence so sorely needed when looking for work?

Yet in a not so different world, I could be her. Sitting on the other side of the table once in a while is pretty heavy reminder.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

 ~ Ian MacLaren

Only Breath

I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,

first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

~ Rumi, Only Breath

 

 

The lotus flower only grows in muck. Its gorgeous, symmetrical shape emerges from rich, dirty mud. Not only does it thrive in such conditions, it has the ability to live for a thousand years.

Lotus seeds can be germinated literally thousands of years after their creation. Their stasis does not mean they are forever lost.

Soaking Through

You’ve got to go on and get moving and I can’t do that for you
Got so many plans and so much you want to do

Love is tough, time is rough
On me

I think there’s something of an adult privilege in staying dry. The access to umbrellas, fancy raincoats from REI, running into the car. There are only a couple times in my adult life I have been absolutely, thoroughly soaked.

The most recent was this past Sunday in Camden, Maine on Mt. Megunticook.

Doing a five mile loop hike in the rain may seem like a bad idea, but for P and I, it was what we could muster. When you can’t talk, or think, or cry, or “process” any more, the rhythm of hiking and the drop of rain in the trees is perfect company.

As we trudged through a trail that was now more stream than path, I pushed. I moved faster, forcing my lungs to practically burn air, jogging up rock ledges and powering through the flats. It was like trying to physically exert the pain. To connect again to my feet, my soaked legs, my frigid hands, my mop of wet hair.

I noticed my frantic pace but couldn’t stop it. Until I wore myself out. Eventually I really looked around. Noticed the absurd beauty of the flooded forest. Looked at P’s hat, being washed for the first time ever, brown rivulets of years of dirt running down his face.

And we laughed.

And the rain looked like tears.

From the ocean viewpoint that was nothing but fog; from the path/stream where we both fell on our asses; from allowing ourselves to be soaked; from the painful, beautiful, soggy reality of it all.

And it’s one life and it’s this life and it’s beautiful

***

Dispatch this week to my sweet Kristin, in the form of money to continue the work of her non-profit Bodhi & Mind Yoga. Please click the previous link to join in as well. Namaste.

 

A Hologram for the King

I love physical objects. From stones to flowers, photos to chachkies, I am always slipping something in my pocket, pasting a ferry ticket in my notebook, forming tactile memories.

One of the beauties of Dave Egger’s most recent book is its physicality. It is simply gorgeous and practically asks to be held and read.

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The story of Alan, a somewhat bumbling everyman who suddenly finds himself in Saudi Arabia, is a crisp, clean tale of aging through a life that has somehow come to the place where you find your feet. Unlike other books with the same arc, Eggers does not overly bemoan fate, bad decisions, or unexpected failure, but rather focuses with laser-like precision on the simplicities that build together to construct our complex lives.

Alan’s reflections on his ex-wife, struggling career and life in general are illuminated in attempted letters to his daughter, Kit. It is through these words that Eggers posits some hard-won wisdom in ways that feel anything but paternalistic. Rather they echo as truth.

“The key thing is managed awareness of your role in the world and history. Think too much and you know you are nothing. Think just enough and you know you are small, but important to some. That’s the best you can do.”

Tales of a trip to watch one of the last space shuttle launches, the death of a transcendentalist friend, camping with his dad, are laid out like pieces to a puzzle, as yet to be completed. Eggers draws parallels from Alan’s life to the unfinished dream city of King Abdullah in which Alan spends most of his time: desires to change things that cannot be altered, placing all investment and hope in the middle of a barren desert, seeing beauty where others see devastation.

And overarching it all, how can we build real, physical things ourselves when the world around us seems to have given up on that endeavor all together – just to save a few bucks?

“They drank a bottle and opened another. They were so in love with the world, and disappointed in every aspect of it, that drinking another bottle while they sat at the kitchen table was the most obvious way they could honor it all.”

Buddha in the Bar

You never know where you’re going to be when you get the news. The news. The bad one.

You never know what bizarre vignette will be seared into your memory forever: the hood of my first car with a neighborhood playground’s silhouette; the look on my dad’s face at the bottom of the stairs; the smiling fat Buddha below the “two shot limit” sign.

Those moments when everything changes. When the tiny shit you do every day fades away and yet that’s all you’re left with.

My friend is dying. Her light, her love, her quirky and downright vulgar humor, her earthly presence is waning. Fast.

What do you do? How do you stare at the place you are in, at once taking in all the detail but also completely removed? On another plane. Without connection.

She wants you to know she’s okay. She loves you. Is so thankful for you and P. Without the lake house we wouldn’t have met. Fallen in love. Married last month at the courthouse because (as you said) “we love each other super darn hard.”

I’m seeing nothing and everything. The rain sounds louder. Her face, her hug at my going away party in January. The request to sew decorations for the big wedding. Her passing around a baking sheet of tequila shots, egging us on.

Her glasses. Her incredible sense of style. Her book nerd passion. Her insane dog and hilarious cat I took care of last August. Her specificity when it comes to Greek yogurt.

Just Kristin. All of it.

***

Kristin passed away Saturday evening, May 25, 2013 from complications of cancer. I hesitate posting this, really anything at this point, but I can’t think of anything else. I can’t write anything else. And this woman never stopped shining and always told me to be real. So, this is real. 

picstitch kristin

Norway Public Library

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A big part of me still wants to be a librarian. To be surrounded by books, with the only goal to further knowledge in others. The equal access to ideas – great and small.

Public libraries are some of my favorite places and we’re lucky to have a great one here in Norway. Beyond its gorgeous columns, the women who work here know my name and my epic borrowing habits.

Growing up my mom would literally fill the back of the car with library books and plow through the whole stack in under a week. I guess I get the gene from her, but all libraries to me feel magical. I mean, they just let you have the book! For three weeks! Or more! Could it get better?

I often worry about the limited access to education in many American communities, but I am always heartened by libraries; these little-engines-that-could of improving public thought. Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re funded near enough or used as often as possible, but their presence speaks volumes (ha! unintentional pun!).

Widely regarded as the first intentional public library (although libraries date back in the historical record to around 2000BCE), the Boston Public Library’s founding statement puts it pretty well:

  • There’s a close linkage between knowledge and right thinking;
  • The future of democracy is contingent on an educated citizenry;
  • There’s a strong correlation between the public library movement and public education; and
  • Every citizen has the right of free access to community-owned resources.

For me, it is all that and so much more. Moving up here I had eight 18-gallon tubs of books and only three of clothes. I just feel at home surrounded by books. It is as Cicero said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

Betty Crocker

Family dinner is a requirement. There were maybe three times growing up I was allowed to not be present for dinner: studying for the SATs, being in some form of trouble, and cheer practice (bring on the jokes).

Today, I am not the cook in our house. I have a few specialties, but P really loves it and often takes the reins. Over the past couple weeks, however, dinner has often fallen to me.

Just cooking for two makes me realize the commitment necessary for this daily task. Not only must you chop, dice, broil and steam without injuring yourself, but the dish must be at the least palatable and at the best crave-able. I usually have little trouble completing the recipe (okay, yes, that one time I confused spicy red curry powder for paprika…), but being inventive while enjoying the process is still a challenge.

I often find myself thinking of my mom’s battered red and white striped Betty Crocker cookbook; a cornerstone of our family kitchen. I’m lucky that my maternal grandmother wrote down her most favorite recipes for me before she passed.

Other than that, to fulfill our ethnic food cravings developed by long years of city life, I scour the internet and other sources for the best ways to make a tofu curry, tandoori chicken, soba noodles, and (the as yet not accomplished holy grail) pho. All from ingredients from the local grocery store (which has a very few “international” items).

Cooking may not be a formal “craft” but it’s pretty amazing the creativity and time we (usually) spend to fuel ourselves.

Paddle Boat

I hate “better living” essays. It always feels like someone is smugly looking at you from the other side saying: Just go vegetarian! Hug a pony! Kale smoothies will change your aura to gold! If you smile, the cosmos align!

This may seem ironic from my current position as a creator of a blog purely dedicated to improving my life, but still.

Honestly, I hate them because it’s so much harder than all that. It takes a lot of work to change. I don’t know about you, but an apathetic Netflix marathon is all too often my default setting (and yes, the Star Trek collection is glorious).

More than all that, I think these lists add to the quick-and-easy-guaranteed-fix-all results we’ve come to expect in American culture. And if it’s not perfect right away, we go on to the next fad. As a perfectionist myself, I fall easily into this trap. If I’m not really good at it RIGHT NOW, I’m apt to move on.

It’s this instinct I’ve been thinking a lot about as I learn to kayak. P’s parents are letting us borrow a couple kayaks for the summer and I’m certifiably obsessed. From my quiet perch on the lake, I’ve watched a bald eagle, fish in handclaws, swoop over my head to her nest. I’ve been surrounded by a cloud of swallows catching bugs at dusk. I’ve scared the geese (muahaha).

As peaceful as it is, I’m not a very good paddler. I’ve watched the videos, I remind myself of the technique, but I cannot direct this boat. I end up using the paddle as a rudder so I don’t hit things. I hurt my shoulder muscles by tending to one side too much.

Despite all that frustration, I still love it. I still go out on the boat as often as weather permits. I want to push through my flirtation with an abundance of activities and see if I can really, deeply master one.

Now if only I could get this thing to stop turning left.

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***

“To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.” ~Phyllis Theroux

Dispatch this week to Ace!

Light on Yoga

City life can be really hard. Some people are truly able to create space no matter how much presses in on them. I never have figured out how to do that – I just breathe better in the company of trees. Yoga is the one exception.

The repetition of train, work, train, yoga, bus, sleep, repeat was my Boston schedule for over a year. I occasionally mixed it up, but by and large, even with my practice, I became what BKS Iyengar calls a styana: “a person suffering from languor…mind and intellect become dull due to inactivity and their faculties rust.”

Since moving to Maine, one of my main goals is to reverse styana. To become, at the very least, a “feeble seeker.”

In his now historic and fundamental book, Light on Yoga, Iyengar outlines the basic precepts of yoga practice that he brought to the West in the 1950s. Based on the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, this “yoga bible” is the go-to reference for teachers in the west in the hatha tradition, and many others.

Iyengar focuses on translating complex ideas embedded in the Sanskrit of these texts into accessible, universal precepts. His commitment to the truly universal pursuit of yoga shines through his descriptions. The majority of the book is incredibly detailed photographs and written descriptions of Yogasanas (poses), Bandhas (holds/body locks), Kriya (thought) and Pranayama (breathing).

Perhaps it’s my singing background (ahem, GHS concert choir vice president, no big deal), but one of the central things I love about yoga practice is the clearing of the mind for one mantra, or rhythmic saying, like the “aum.” Yesterday, my teacher offered one word/concept: “receive.”

Other times, it is a meditation like “So’ham” – a breathing meditation that roughly translates to “I am That.” Repeated it becomes “I am That I am That I am,” which is believed to be the unconscious repetitive prayer that “goes on forever within each living creature throughout life.”

I still struggle with the disengagement encouraged by the practice (I’m sorry, but joy and trauma are not the same), but I continue to return. To attempt to sit with the meaning of yoga – “the yoking of all the powers of body, mind and soul to God…the disciplining of the intellect, the mind, the emotions, the will…a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly.”

Examen-ing

I cannot keep track of how many times I screw up. It’s a pretty universal truth that we’re all just muddling through most of the time, and tallying my missteps is nearly impossible.

Part of the Ignatian “examen” is to be incredibly thoughtful and intentional about one’s life: “hour by hour, period by period.” It is designed to prompt in a person the attentiveness to bring about change; very rooted in the idea that nothing can ever transform without vigilant effort.

While I find that to be true, I also wonder when this attention becomes obsession, and the reflection on one’s shortcomings becomes damaging.

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We’ve all heard about “Catholic guilt” and it’s very real. I was raised outside of this construction, so luckily I’ve escaped its grasp, but I know too many people who inflict upon themselves unnecessary levels of stress. In this way, perhaps, the focus of an examen can be a reality check – waking us up to our real areas of need, rather than a false state of “not-enough-ness.”

When we notice ourselves doing what we ought not, whether it’s lying, or a lack of charity, or sniffing glue, Ignatius asks that we note it. At first with a simple hand to our chest “grieving for having fallen: which can be done even in the presence of many, without their perceiving what he is doing.”

Later, he asks we write it down, each day, for a week. Then use those lists to see if by awareness, we’ve improved.

Spiritual directors I’ve had (as an examen is not meant to be done alone) also ask me to note moments of grace during an examen. It’s pretty telling that the two often coincide.

Just as in yogic teaching, Jesuit theology teaches “God in all things,” including ourselves.

For that reason when change is not as easy to accomplish, a balance can be achieved by cultivating an awareness of ourselves as holders of the divine. All with infinite abilities, gifts and hopes; all waiting to be discovered and brought into daily, concrete practice. In this way we can attempt to treat ourselves with as much forgiveness and grace as those who love us.

And that’s really my main struggle. While I can definitely count the times my mouth has gotten me in trouble, it’s the constant replay of my mistakes in my head, the pressure I place on myself to achieve some nebulous goal, or the apathy I let myself fall into that are my true hurdles.

Taking the simple step of paying attention may seem small, but it can have huge effects. If we see how often we falter, we can treat ourselves and others with a bit more patience and gentleness. Because, as I’ve heard, patience is a virtue.