I’m Baaaack!

We returned from our 3 day camping trip this evening and will be heading out to Madison tomorrow to walk in the Step Out Walk to Stop Diabetes.  We ended up going down to Shawnee National Forest….again.  This was our fourth trip down there together.  The chance to spend a few more days in summer temperatures was just too appealing to pass up.  I loved watching the fall colors intensify as we drove north again today.  There were rain clouds in the area still and rainbows to accentuate the play of late afternoon sun.  I am glad to be back up in Wisconsin where the reds of sumac and maple have taken their place in the fall palette.   Down south on the Mississippi we got a chance to see migrating birds.  The snake migration was also going on, we heard, but we weren’t looking for them.  What we did see were flocks of white pelicans doing aerial maneuvers that took my breath away.  Going in one direction, they are brilliant white in the sun.  Then they turn, and you see the black undersides of their wings.  It’s magical!

American White Pelicans migrating south

...and stopping to rest by the Big Muddy

Can you imagine what it might have been like to be Meriwether Lewis or William Clark and see wildlife in the kinds of number that populated the United States in 1804?  I get excited seeing a few dozen turkey vultures sunning themselves in the early morning.  I wonder how many they saw on a daily basis during their expedition?

Turkey vultures warming up

What would be the difference in our cultural ideas about nature and conservation if experiences of wildlife sighting weren’t “exotic” but commonplace?  Would we feel more or less concerned about the web of biodiversity?



Okay, so we didn’t set off on our camping trip today.  Steve’s feeling a bit…odd.  Low energy.  So, instead, we’re going to see a foodie film that’s part of the Milwaukee Film Festival (“El Bulli – Cooking in Progress”), and we’ll set out tomorrow.  We also picked out a new novel to read aloud.  This is a tradition that we started the first year we were dating.  We began with Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and now we’ve begun The Plumed Serpent by D.H. Lawrence.  Also, check out my new blog bling, Brighter Planet’s 350 Challenge Patch.  It’s at the end of my posts.  One week from yesterday is the Diabetes Step Out Walk.  There’s a link to that down there, too.

My personal gold star for the day was letting Steve sleep in until 11am without getting anxious about a change in our plans.  I am becoming a more spontaneous person.  My kids will applaud.

Slowing Down

The morning after a splendid dinner party looks like this:

A kitchen full of dirty dishes

Four people, five beverages, three courses = dishes to wash.  Oh, but it went quickly and painlessly.  Then I took naps.  Three so far.  We’re both feeling a bit out of it today, not sure why.  Not hungover or anything, just slow and wobbly.  Plus, it’s been raining steadily.  Seasonal changes and changes in habit seem more noticeable as I grow older.  That’s good, though.  I want to be more aware; I want to slow down and notice life.

Tomorrow, we plan to head north into the upper peninsula of Michigan and camp in the Porcupine Mountains.  I’ve never been there.  I want to take lots of pictures and write blog entries in a journal to post when I return.  I want to keep my eyes open and learn.  I also want to figure out how to recycle the empty propane canisters for the Coleman stove.  We’ve collected 5 now, and the best information I can gather from the Coleman website is that perhaps a steel recycling place will take them, perhaps not.  I remember finding one in a fire pit once and digging out fibrous pieces that looked like asbestos or something.  With any luck, we’ll find enough dry wood that we won’t need to use another one.

Today’s reading material was from the book of Job and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  Radical affirmations of the mystery, sanctity and loveliness of life.  “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?  Declare, if you know all this.”  I cannot comprehend, but I can love.

Gracious Living

So today is about the ancient grace of hospitality.  We are finally having Steve’s sister and brother-in-law over for dinner.  I am excited to host them here for the first time.  I’m making a Dijon-rosemary pork tenderloin with red potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and butternut squash.  We’ll sip martinis and nibble on Stilton cheese and Kalamata olives to begin with, and Cheryl’s bringing the wine and dessert.  It brings back memories of the anticipation in the air when my mother would have one of her gourmet dinner parties.  Of course, hers were on a much grander scale.  There is housecleaning to do first.  The meat’s been marinating since last night.  The squash goes in the crock pot 4 hours in advance.  I think of Middle Eastern feasts that take days to prepare and days to consume, and I figure I’m striking a balance.  Not too fussy, but some fussing.  I want to communicate that they definitely merit some special effort, but I want to be able to enjoy their company when they get here and not be rushing off to the kitchen to babysit the food.

No shortage of "conversation pieces" in our home!

I have an endless fascination with family.  I came from a family of 7.  Steve just has one sister and neither of them have children.  The dynamics in his family are completely unique, of course.  I suppose I am looking for clues about why he is the way he is and why that is different from the way I am.   I am building appreciation and understanding with every opportunity I have to interact with them.  I want to be open to whatever the evening will bring.  I want to be fully present and aware.  And around the edges of my consciousness, I know that I want to make a good impression so that they like me.  That’s my people-pleasing habit, my achievement-oriented perfectionism.  I always want to earn gold stars so that I can pat myself on the back and feel affirmed.  So, yeah, that’s duly noted and released, like those wandering thoughts I have in meditation.

Building community is essential to the unity I was writing about yesterday.  I suppose that we start practicing that in families.  I will be keeping that in mind and will write more of about that as the next step in our Saving the Planet dialogue.

The Ultimate Simplicity of Unity

Health comes from wholeness.  This is true for every individual body on the face of the planet right up to the Earth itself.  If the spherical (3-dimensional) network of interconnections is intact and working in harmony, we enjoy good health.  Damaging those connections and setting up division between body and soul, body and earth, ourselves and others, creates a loneliness that we compensate using violence and competition.  Violence to part is violence to the whole.  We undo the fabric of life this way.  Whenever we insist on the “rights of the individual”, we chip away at those connections.  (see Jessa’s comment on the last post)  How do we practice unity and health?  How do we take up a posture of balance in our relationship to Creation or the Universe?  Do we have the maturity and courage to desire this responsibility on our own so that it isn’t an “obligation”?

This morning, I have been reading an essay by Wendell Berry called “The Body and The Earth” from The Unsettling of America published in 1977.  It is an extremely articulate and broad analysis of that “spherical network” that moves fluidly from agriculture, to Shakespeare and suicide, to sexual differences and divisions, and more.  Here is an excerpt from the beginning which describes the mythic human dilemma:

“Until modern times, we focused a great deal of the best of our thought upon such rituals of return to the human condition.   Seeking enlightenment or the Promised Land or the way home, a man would go or be forced to go into the wilderness, measure himself against the Creation, recognize finally his true place within it, and thus be saved both from pride and from despair.  Seeing himself as a tiny member of a world he cannot comprehend or master or in any final sense possess, he cannot possibly think of himself as a god.  And by the same token, since he shares in, depends upon, and is graced by all of which he is a part, neither can he become a fiend; he cannot descend into the final despair of destructiveness.  Returning from the wilderness, he becomes a restorer of order, a preserver.  He sees the truth, recognizes his true heir, honors his forebears and his heritage, and gives his blessing to his successors.  He embodies the passing of human time, living and dying within the human limits of grief and joy.”

Last night, Steve handed me his own definition of living holistically: establishing (or re-establishing) a personal responsibility towards all aspects of the universe.  He defines responsibility here as love, that is “presence with or an acknowledged relationship with” and the desire to improve that relationship.  He noted that this responsibility comes from free will, not as an obligation.  This is the posture of openness, the basic attitude to begin any discussion about living sustainably or in unity and harmony.  Think of it as the beginning of a tai chi exercise or a yoga session.  You take a balanced position: heels together and toes out for tai chi; heels together, toes together, palms together in front of your heart for yoga.  Breathe deeply, opening connections to the respiratory system, the digestive system, the circulatory system.

Steve assumes the position

This is only the beginning, but as Mary Poppins would say, “Well begun is half done.”  This part takes practice, just like meditation.  Return to your breath.  Return to a position of openness as you try to save the planet.  We are not gods and we are not fiends.  We are humans who love the universe, who desire to improve our relationship with every aspect of it.

C’mon People Now; Ev’rybody Get Together

Harambee is a Swahili word that means “all pull together”.   Many community organizations use it in their name.  I understand this concept very clearly, being the linear thinker that I am.  I visualize a load at the end of a rope.  The object is to move the load in one direction, so everyone grabs the rope and pulls together in that direction.  I would love to figure out how to jump onto that rope line and move the planet back from the brink of disaster.  Problem solved, “ta-dah”, now we party.  However, our interconnected web of global systems presents a more complicated “load”.  If you start pulling in one direction, something else will be effected and will move.  How will that effect everything else?  That’s something to take into consideration.  In fact, the whole thing has to be considered at the same time, holistically.  So how do you visualize that?  Steve was talking about a gyroscope-type model, with himself as the hub.  He mentioned staying balanced and grounded in that center.  I thought that sounded rather egocentric, but then he spoke about the Buddhist idea that “no one can be at peace until we’re all at peace”.  Then, I visualized a round tabletop that was balanced on top of a ball at the center.  With all of life on the tabletop, we would have to arrange ourselves simultaneously and evenly around the table so that it doesn’t tip in any one direction.  Nature sort of works like this.  Take populations: when one gets too large, the food web makes a sort of correction to bring it back in balance.  Human beings are way out of balance on that tabletop.  We have tipped everything in our direction; we are way too heavy in many different ways.  How do we pull back in toward the center and make room for all the rest of life to be in balance?  How do we look at the entire tabletop at once?

Steve has often pointed out to me that I am “not an athlete” (for example, when I’m getting in his way while he’s carrying a heavy box of books).  He talks about how really good athletes have a way of anticipating how and where to move in just the right way to be in the right place at the right time.  Think of soccer goalies or basketball rebounders.  They seem to have eyes in the back of their head or peripheral vision and electromagnetic sensors that enable them to assess the total situation far better than the average person.  There’s a grace and an instinct that gives them that special edge over the merely agile and strong. We need to have that kind of sense about our global situation.  How do we move to counteract the imbalances in our systems?

I wish I were more of a visionary and that I had an answer for you.  I am a freight train in many ways.  I pull slowly and persistently, but I’m not the leader you’re looking for.  I may be the droid, though. : )  But I believe that leadership is out there.  There must be athletes in global perspective somewhere on this planet.  Let’s start a forum.  Let’s get together to work on sustainability.  Let’s balance this tabletop before we all go crashing over the edge.

On track to sustainability

Biological Diversity

Today, a group of special needs adults came to the Wehr Nature Center for a field trip.  They saw a puppet show about how animals survive the winter.  We passed the puppets among them to let them meet the characters before the show.  Afterwards, we passed some real animals around, a box turtle and a snake named Fancy, for them to touch “with one finger”.   Then, we divided the group in half and went outside.  Those that were more ambulatory took a walk around the nature center, the others sat up on the observation deck overlooking the pond.  This was a very diverse group, and I couldn’t tell what they were noticing or taking in.  We tried to point out things that they could see, hear, touch, or smell (we didn’t dare do any tasting!).  Some of them were pretty absorbed by their own selves and other people in the group.  Some were able to engage at times in what was around them on the path.  One man, Charlie, pointed up to a tree covered with Virginia creeper vines that had turned red and just started laughing!  He was so excited!  I loved that reaction.  That made my day.  Lester spent the time pointing out behaviors in the group or hiding behind people.  He held my hand for a while on the trail.  When we all congregated on the observation deck, he introduced some of his friends to the staff, one by one.  Finally, we got them all loaded back on the bus and waved good-bye.  There were 30 in all, including 2 in wheelchairs.  Most were men.  All the caregivers were women.

This made Charlie laugh

I am grateful to have been reminded that biological diversity includes every species and every variation in the species, including ours.  Respecting and including all of life is an exercise in awareness every moment of every day.  I want to be able to be gracious and friendly to every living thing I encounter, and I want to put myself in a position to encounter a wide variety.  I suppose that is my desire for my own edification, but I think that it is advantageous for everyone and builds tolerance and peace in the world.  Observing people in nature is interesting.  Some of the volunteers were talking about kids who react negatively to things in nature.  One girl got very agitated and upset over the sticker-burrs that were clinging to her sweater after a hike.  It makes you wonder how unfamiliar she must have been with the outdoors.  We are often scared by things that are unknown.  As we understand things better, we are able to be more compassionate.  Steve’s favorite Bible verse is “For God so loved the world…” and he stops there.  God loves the world.  Steve loves the world.  What would be the result if more people learned to love the world and taught their children to do the same?  “And it was very good.”

I love Turtles

I love the colors and textures under my feet

Saving the Planet: a Rational and Emotional Goal

We were going to watch another episode of The Life of Mammals featuring Steve’s hero, David Attenborough.  Somehow, despite a huge allergy attack and the resultant stuffed up head, Steve’s critical mind was able to detect something nagging at him.  The media, entertainment, and complacency: is this a distraction from what we really want to pursue?  Sure, it’s about animals and nature, but is it likely to help us get closer to saving our desperate planet?  Are we sinking into a kind of complacency and pacifying our outrage by convincing ourselves that we’re doing the best we can just by appreciating nature through the media?  What is the best we can do?  How about coming up with solutions to systemic problems?  Why would that be impossible?  It’s no more impossible than writing a dissertation or an 800 page book on the life of Henry VIII.  It takes energy and research and time and focus.  That’s all.

Okay, at 9:30pm, I am not up to solving systemic problems, or even thinking about them.  I had a headache and a backache, and I started crying.  So I took a couple of ibuprofen and suggested we talk about it in the morning.

So, this morning I wake up with this phrase in my head, “If you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”  Well, of course I’m part of the problem.  I drive a gasoline-operated vehicle.  I contribute to an economic system that is full of gross inequalities.  There is plenty on that side of the list.  I would like to be part of the solution.  I would like to know what the solution is first, though.  That seems rational to me.  Steve counters that in order to be motivated to find a solution, we need the energy of emotion.  My British heritage and upbringing say, “No way.  You can’t motivate me by appealing to emotion.  I want to be rational.  I want to do the right thing for a rational reason.”  Is there a rational reason to do the right thing?  Why do you want to do something beneficial?  Because it’s good to do good.  Ah, but that is a tautological argument.  Good = Good doesn’t prove anything.  It’s like saying, “Because I said so.”   Okay, fine.  I do want to be part of the solution for an emotional reason.  And the minute I say that, I want to back away from it.  “Emotion never got anything done; it’s so uncivilized.”  Wow, does that sound British or what?  Ah, but the energy that comes with emotion can be very useful.  Are we ever going to make drastic changes in our destructive trajectory if we don’t get angry or scared or fed up or sad in some way about how things are?

It's not easy being green

Okay, so how about striking a balance and coming up with a both/and approach?  Rationally, polluting the planet and alienating ourselves from all life around us through exploitation and indifference is not wise.  It may lead to our ultimate destruction.  Emotionally, the defacing of the original cathedral of our adoration, all of life, makes me sad, angry and scared.  I want to put energy, research, time and focus into finding ways to live differently.  Recognizing that “all life” is interconnected, this will involve looking critically at economic systems, ecological systems, biological systems, psychological systems, political systems, sociological systems, philosophical systems, religious systems, etc.  A complete overhaul.  Why not? What else have I got to do with my life?  I could just sit back and be complacent or sneer and be cynical or throw up my hands and despair, but I think I’d rather just get to work.  I don’t expect the first attempts will be perfect or even adequate, but we may as well point the canoe and start paddling.

Is this nuts?  Is this manic?  Is this taking responsibility?  What do you think?



How are you feeling today?

Last night I read a play that really impressed me.  It is a piece of writing that satisfies on many levels.  It’s called “W;t” (or “Wit”) by Margaret Edson, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1999.  I recommend it highly, especially to the Approximate Chef and Memma.  You will love the protagonist, a 50 year old professor of seventeenth century poetry, specializing in John Donne.  She has stage 4 ovarian cancer, and the action is set entirely in the hospital.  Her understanding of life, of living from your wits, is rigorous, exacting, detailed, intelligent.  Being treated for cancer puts her in a situation that is painful, humiliating, and collaborative.  The script is brilliant and suddenly tender at the end in a way that doesn’t degenerate into sentimentality, but strikes firmly at the heart.  If I were to see this live in the theater, I’m sure I would be unable to rise from my seat for a good half hour after the curtain fell.  I’d be savoring every emotion.  Read it and you’ll see what I mean.  One of the “running gags” is that the intern keeps reminding himself of the “clinical” practice of asking the patient how she is feeling.  The question may seem moot, or insensitive, or humorous, but it points to self-awareness regularly, which for most of us is sorely needed.

I am noticing the subtle changes of aging.  I hear popping and cracking in my joints whenever I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  I feel stiffness in the morning from sleeping on our rock-hard futon.  I have never been very flexible, and today, I tried to do yoga along with a DVD.  I found myself mesmerized by the instructor’s body and thinking of my sister Dharam, who has taught yoga, acrobatics and dance for 30 years.  It is so beautiful to watch, and I feel like my body will never be able to do it.   Memma can do it; she is fluid and flexible and of a completely different body type.  I wonder if all bodies can if they practice regularly.  The problem is fear.  I am afraid and mistrust my own body.  The way to dismantle fear is with understanding.  I had a massage a week ago, and as each muscle was touched, I felt as if I were being introduced to it for the first time.  “Oh!  That’s my muscle going from there…to…there.  It feels a bit tight and tender; I wonder if I can relax it?  Breathe….”  I am trying not to think things like, “Oh, my god!  I am so stiff and creaky!  There must be something really wrong with me.  I probably have bone cancer!”

I keep reminding myself that I just had a full physical, mammogram and pap, and blood work done, all with normal results.  If I hadn’t, I could probably convince myself that I had one foot in the grave.  My hypochondria is fully actualized.  I’m sure part of that is due to living with Jim throughout the stages of his illness and death.  The vigilance we developed became a blessing and a curse.  The trick is finding balance, finding the Middle Way.  As I stand with my toes and heels together, arms at my side, breathing deeply through my nose, I remember this.  Balance.  Breath.  Practice.  Love myself.  Ask myself compassionately, “How are you feeling today?”

Feeling fine, thanks!

Sundays: Prayers and Practices

Sundays were full of ritual in our house.  We went to church every week to sing in the choir, to serve at the altar, to teach or learn in Sunday School, and to meet up with familiar folk.  There were the formal rituals of the liturgy and the informal rituals of getting everyone up and dressed and in the car.  After church, we had rituals of brunching on bagels and sleeping in front of the Bears’ game.  These habits gave our Sundays a certain shape and form that became very comfortable to me.  I didn’t think very hard about them after a while.  They seemed fairly easy and routine, a balance of early busy-ness and later laziness.  We’d dress up and then let down.  It was what we did, week after week.  Gradually, this practice began to unravel as the kids grew up, moved out, and developed their own habits.  When they came back into my home, this routine was questioned.  Do I have to get up and dress up and go to church?  I’m used to sleeping in on Sundays now.  Why do you do this routine anyway?  Is it obligation?  Okay, you committed to being in the choir.   You’re obligated, I’m not.  Do you think I’m obligated to you because you’re my mother?  It became obvious that it was time to think critically about our family habits and evaluate them.  I admit that I was not above manipulation.  I  liked to have my kids with me in church.  I liked to hear them sing.  I liked being seen by others as a mother with devoted children.  I wanted to have time together as a family because I worried about how ‘dysfunctional’ we were becoming.  I thought I could get what I wanted by imposing ‘rules’, but when my authority over them came into question, I resorted to bribing them with food…or guilt.  “It’s a family thing!  Don’t you want to go to brunch at Egg Harbor with us?”  Occasionally, I would even be satisfied if they skipped church and met up with us at a restaurant afterwards.

After Jim died and I began dating Steve, I invited him to come to church with me.  He observed the whole morning routine respectfully and rather silently.  I finally asked for his feedback.  His first comment was that I had become a totally different person than the one he knew.  I had adopted a persona that he didn’t recognize.  I had put on my social ‘face’ and performed my part in the choir, but he saw nothing of the spirituality we talked about while hiking in the prairie.  He asked me whether I thought my church habits contributed to my spiritual growth, and I couldn’t answer right away.  He also asked me why I neglected to inquire about his bagel preferences when I picked up brunch afterwards.  That was embarrassing!  I was in my familiar bubble and not even thinking about my guest.  “We always do it this way, and you can just follow along,” is something I am very used to accepting and enforcing.  Steve doesn’t like to be treated that way, though.  He values participating as an equal in what is happening.   His theological questions came next.  If you’ve never been to an Episcopal mass before, you would probably be bursting with questions about the symbolism alone by the end of the service.  Steve was wondering if there would be an occasion that he could stand up and ask about what was going on.   Can you imagine?  “Uh, excuse me?  Hi.  I’m Steve and this is my first time here.  Can you tell my why you’re doing that with that cup (or candle or incense diffuser or garment or….) and what that means?”  I had to admit that the whole social construct was not designed to be very inclusive or open.  It was another case of “we always do it this way, and you can just follow along”.  I began to wonder how much of my long-standing religious faith was about simply following along.

Holy Hill, from far away

Here, I am living without religious habit or routine for the first time in my life.  I have decided that I don’t want to live without practice, though, because practice leads to mindfulness.  I am working out how and what to practice.  Back in May, I began to write my own Daily Offices, reminders for certain times of the day.   Here’s what I put together:

I.  Matins – Make Love Every Morning

I become aware of a new day, of the sun rising in the east once more. I feel the security of its constant faithfulness and a deep gratitude and contentment washes over me. I appreciate the sun. I hear birdsong or a cat mew, and I become aware that other creatures greet the new day with me, each one appreciating this regular phenomenon in her own way. I feel the lightness of the sky reflected in the lightness of my body. Food digested, shadow of darkness lifted, I feel buoyant and relaxed and open. The energy of a new day and new opportunities fills me with each breath. I notice the particulars of this morning, the weather, my body, my surroundings, where I am, who is with me. I am grateful for these particulars as they are. I am aware that each of my loved ones greets the morning in some way, and I think of them with appreciation for the connection we have on this planet. I am aware of myself. I am appreciative of my body, of my inner being, and I hold myself in a place of unconditional love. I belong on the earth today. I have an important part to play here along with everything else. I want to be aware of that all day long. I become aware of any anger or fear that might arise in me as I spend time with myself. I notice any of these “stuck spots” with compassion. I review my 3 options: run away, change my circumstances, change myself.

 II.  None – The Ninth Hour – After School Snack

I pause after a few hours’ work to refresh myself. I am grateful for the food I eat and for the earth that nourishes me. I appreciate the way my body repairs itself while resting. I note the work that I have done so far today, the satisfaction of taking responsibility for my life. I become aware of any places I may have become “stuck” today. I re-direct my energy so that flow resumes. I notice changes in the sun’s light, in the weather, in the activity and mood of the afternoon. I feel grateful for these particulars as they are. I spend time with myself and nurture my inner child coming back home.

 III.  Compline – Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

As I slow down at the end of the day, I pay attention to any anxieties that have gathered around me during the day. As darkness falls, I let go of these anxieties, breathing out slowly and gratefully. I look deeply within for the security and safety I seek, remembering that the world proceeds according to natural laws, life and death have their place, my days will be as they will be, and fear need not preoccupy my thoughts. I ask for peace, for every living thing to be free from suffering.

I was having panic attacks back in Spring because of the enormous transitions I was going through, and wanted to practice being mindful that the world is a continuously unfolding and wonderful place, not a dangerous place of uncertainty and chaos.  Thich Nhat Hahn talks about tending the gardens we grow in our lives by nurturing seeds that we want to see in full bloom.  I want peace to bloom in my garden.  I want love to bloom without manipulation.  I want a mindful connection to the Divine to bloom.  I want responsibility and intentional participation to bloom.  I want to develop practices that will encourage these to grow.