singing or asleep?

A few weeks ago, at the start of the summer, really, I went with my wife and a friend to a special event where we got to lay in a dark room and listen to a musician make crystal bowls and glass objects sing. I know, I know — depending on how interested or open you are to “woo woo” types of activities, this event may seem like either the best or the worst way to spend a Friday evening. Believe me, I get it. But, even if you’re not into the energy of life, letting go of things that don’t serve you, and opening up space in your energy field for magic, it’s still nice. After all, you get to lay down and rest — and the music’s not bad.

That said, I was there laying on a couple of stacked yoga mats with a bolster and some blankets, making myself comfortable to enjoy this …experience. It was my first time at this type of event, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would it be weird? Would it be cool? Would my dead grandparents or future children come to me and tell me something deep? Would I just be uncomfortable laying on the floor for 90 minutes without a mattress?

The musician found that nice balance of alert and playful as she greeted us and helped us settle in, the lighting soft and dim, and I felt more comfortable on the floor than I thought I would. When the musician’s set began I immediately started to relax and breathe more deeply. The bowls and glass contraptions made a soft, resonating tone that filled the room floor to ceiling. I felt my body vibrate softly, too — not uncomfortable, but a distinct, non-me vibration. It was was weird and it was cool and I settled into a deep stillness to absorb the changing tones and volumes and — kind of like night tennis — to use my other senses to tune into the music’s movements as the musician walked the room with her instruments. I didn’t see any ghosts or visions, but my whole body and even my mind began to relax and take in sensation rather than words. Ah…

At some point, I did have to shift around on my mat and that’s when I noticed it:  snoring. There were about a dozen of us in the L-shaped room laid out in a variety of angles and postures and I couldn’t quite tell where the sound was coming from but it was most definitely a snore. At first I was annoyed but then I re-relaxed and reflected. Maybe someone needed the rest and this was their only chance during the week to have that time to just be still, with no outside demands on them. The snoring flagged then faded away. Back to the singing, sounds resonating, the vibrations and energy. Then it happened again. More snoring. But from somewhere else in the room. And while that person sawed away, another person joined in. Now snoring was in stereo!

It continued on and off for the rest of the session, ending with at least one snort when the music itself ended. As soon as stereo snoring began, I decided to have a sense of humor and imagine that the snores were part of the sound experience, an extra flourish to the spiritually healing soundscape. But truly, it made me wonder — what was it about this setting or this experience that put multiple people to sleep? Were they so rundown or overworked that this was their only place to find rest? That in itself seems problematic, even sad. Imagine — having to go somewhere outside your home and pay just to guarantee yourself 90 minutes of uninterrupted rest. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe they were unable to be present in a relaxed body — they were so unaccustomed to being simultaneously awake and relaxed that once they reached a certain point of relaxation their minds just checked out and they slipped away. Maybe the healing they were looking for was there and accessible for them, but they just couldn’t be awake for it, they couldn’t be present and clear for it — whatever the reason or barrier.

And that led me to think about myself — where am I asleep in my life? What are the experiences that I’ve had or often have where I’m not present or clear for it? And why is that? Am I physically exhausted? Am I stressed or anxious about things that are beyond my control? Am I holding on to old pain, limiting ideas or ideals that keep me from taking in and absorbing what’s around me, keep me from growing or changing, keep me fuzzy and unfocused? And if so what can I do to get clear, be alert and playful?

Each of those questions deserves a lot of reflection and action, so I can’t answer all of those here and now, but I can say that time and space, quiet and stillness are key tools that help me clear out. And I guess the unexpected, like snoring, can’t hurt with keeping me alert and playful.

Doing it out of hate, or doing it for love

Like writing, health and fitness was something on my list of things to do that kind of fell off the list for a while. I was finishing up the school year — just trying to get through it — and in the flurry of deadlines and things to pack I just wasn’t able to be very physically active. As a result, I’ve gained a few pounds, and I haven’t been feeling my best. In fact, I started to really dislike myself and to feel frustrated and angry about where I was health-wise. That’s not a good thing, to be walking around in a body that makes me feel uncomfortable and even downright mad.

So a couple of weeks ago I had a little talk with myself. I could either continue as I was, mad and frustrated at myself — at my body, really — or I could decide to make a change. I decided to try change (yay for positive decisions!) and then I sat down to spend some time looking at my weekly schedule and overall summer calendar. For me I can’t make a decision and let it wither and fade, sidelined by inaction. It has to be made real for me with things that are visual and tangible like schedules and lists. So I made a weekly exercise schedule and I’ve been sticking to it — with some missed sessions here and there — but I’m working on staying positive, valuing the process and growth, rather than trying to be perfect.

That said, when I was back at the gym for the first time in months I realized in the middle of my workout why I was there — why I was really there. Originally the schedule and list and all that were a reaction to something negative — my frustration and anger at myself — but once I was there, looking in the mirror doing squats or whatever it was I realized I was actually there because I love myself, not because I hate myself. I was there to take care of myself, to spend time with myself, and to invest in myself — in my physical health, of course, but also in my mental and spiritual well being. Because it turns out that I like to move my body and feel strong and see myself grow. I like feeling my heartbeat and having my face turn pink and my muscles get that jiggly-weak feeling after doing something hard and catching my breath before trying it again. I like that timeless feeling of being in the moment, focused on what I’m doing exactly here and exactly now. All of that is a great gift to myself, and a way for me to really experience the fact that I’m here on earth, alive, in a body that supports me, in a body that is my greatest gift and tool.

And I think we all need outlets to get our bodies moving, to reaffirm our connections to our bodies, and to spend some time having those timeless moments where clocks and schedules and even the ideas of goals and perfection fade and become distant so that all we can hear is our heartbeats in our chests, our breath move through our bodies, and that beautiful moment of body and being coming together. There’s nothing better than that — that’s what I’ve been missing, and those parts coming together feel like home.

So I don’t do work outs or yoga classes or bike or swim or run because my body frustrates and angers me and I hate it. No, I do it because my body is my home and I love living in it. I’m doing it for love, love, love.

living, (in)action

the coming of spring has got me a little distracted, but i still wanted to attempt a post — so here’s what i’ve got for now.

some thoughts from the week(s):

  1. positive envy — creates a spark in ourselves to emulate those we admire:  getting fit, eating healthy, getting a degree, being kind, being courageous. esteem and admiration are positive forms of envy, ones that we hope to inspire in others so that they push themselves to greater heights.
  2. negative envy — creates a spark to be aggressive, to take people down a peg and keep them “in their place,” to keep them from being too powerful, too rich, too famous. when taken to the extreme we can attribute certain types of violence to negative envy. (from Hidden Brain podcast, Counting Other People’s Blessings)
  3. walk up vs. walk out campaign — yes, we should avoid excluding people and shun bullies, but sometimes the people being excluded or bullied deserve that behavior. i’ve seen unpopular kids become unpopular because they’re unkind, immature, rude, do gross things. there’s also the bystander issue:  if a kid is being unkind, immature, rude, gross and you’re observing this happen, as their peer say something firmly but kindly; explain that that their behavior is unacceptable and help bridge the misunderstanding. but then there’s the question — do we let kids “be themselves” no matter how much that may push them out of the social group, essentially becoming isolated and an outsider, or do we teach kids that in order to be accepted into a social group they can’t always be themselves, do whatever they want? sometimes concessions have to be made to be in a group — and if we’re not willing to make certain concessions about who we are and the ways we want to act and be, then we have to accept that it’s not a good fit, and leave that group to search for another one, no?
  4. walk up vs. walk out — one day of nice notes isn’t going to make an outsider feel like they’re “in.” and if the outsider is truly already pushed outside the social group, they will know that. moreover, redirecting kids to “be nice” instead of taking time to be socially disobedient — in a safe way, i might add — to make a point about their rights to a safe childhood and safe environments is a distraction from the actual issue of violence and access to guns. it’s also talking down to kids:  you want to protest the problem of gun violence in your society? how about you write 17 sticky notes and pass them out to your friends and teachers instead? why don’t you tell a “sad kid” a joke? a lot more work that that has to be done to create environments of care, concern, and tolerance.
  5. progressives and conservatives and neo-cons — it’s all a shit show, isn’t it? we’re all raging against a machine, one that our predecessors created and one that we’re living in, following the rules of the game, willingly or perhaps unwillingly. and groups of people when they come together create a mess. it’s hard to unify because there are so many exceptions to the rule, especially as humans. essentially we are built to be diverse in body and mind. that diversity is both our greatest strength and our greatest obstacle. hopefully we will develop the imagination and compassion to see one another in closer kinship.
  6. Hoodoisie (say:  hood-WAH-zee, from the French bourgeoisie) — a show in Pilsen (Chicago! south side!) my wife and i went to on Saturday night. lots of progressive politics discussed. lots of people present from non-mainstream identities including race, gender, sexual orientation. and as a teacher who went into teaching to invest in our collective human capital, to plant the seeds of self-empowerment, self-revelation, and internal revolution — drops of water that would hopefully one day become a wave of change on a planet that is thirsty for change — i feel uplifted and encouraged that good things are happening and will continue to happening. growth and change is on the way.
  7. children — spent time with some of my favorite four kids this weekend. checkers and rolling dice and dinner and hair cuts and car rides and talking and laughing and chocolate chip cookies. children can be terrible tyrants sometimes, but they are also beautiful healings. what love.
  8. balance — a teacher this weekend said to me, “if we all had perfect balance we wouldn’t be here.” and i take that “here” to mean the room we were in, but also the lives we’re living. balancing peace and struggle, effort and rest, compassion and justice, oneness and individuality, patience and action, control and letting go — that’s what it’s all about. there is mystery and depth and unknowableness in life, and that unites us.

Taking Things Apart

About two weeks ago, I came home from work to see my mom and wife preparing to take apart the pipes under the kitchen sink. The sink had been draining slowly for a few days and she had decided to call my mom, who knows a few things about home maintenance and repair, so that she could learn to do it herself. Three hours later, after a trip to the hardware store and a few breaks to just stare at the mess we’d made, the sink was put back together and draining just like it should. The process, though, was very uncomfortable for me. Partially because I didn’t know that The Kitchen Sink Project was going to happen, and partially because I feel very uncomfortable with taking things apart and making a mess.

In part some of my discomfort — that borders on dread — stems from my upbringing. And what better way to get to know myself and my childhood hardwiring than to throw myself into new or uncomfortable situations? My mom liked a very orderly, neat and clean house. And I don’t blame her:  she was a single mom with two kids and she had to go to whatever lengths she could to make sure we were clean, clothed, fed, and educated. As a result, keeping a tight schedule and an orderly home was the cornerstone of my childhood. Neat and orderly is generally a good thing, but sometimes there can be too much of it.

I remember as a kid, probably around 10 or 12, I felt inspired to draw, so went to take out some art materials. I opened up the cabinet and reached for the little plastic watercoloring set that we had had for years, but at the thought of having to control and then clean up the mess, I stopped myself. Rather than deal with the burdens of mess and clean up, I chose to avoid it. I chose to do something else instead. And that wasn’t the only time. As I grew up if I could do something cleaner, tighter, more contained, I chose that option. I systematically began to avoid messes, experimenting with materials, taking things apart, getting dirty.

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Odds and ends from the tool closet.

The philosophy of staying need, tidy, and contained continued at school, too. When it came to those typically messier, more hands-on subjects like art or science, my teachers trotted out the easiest possible options. Paper and pencil drawings in art, maybe occasionally something like paper mosaics with construction paper and glue. And for a real treat, drawing with oil pastels or chalk on paper. In science, work mostly revolved around textbooks — books we couldn’t even take home to read, because in middle school there was a set of 30 for about 90 of us. In fifth grade I got to dissect an owl pellet, but I think my teacher only got five or six, so we had to share in groups of five or six. For me as a student, explorations meant looking on from a safe distance — from behind glass at a museum, by looking over my grandpa’s shoulder at his workbench, by wondering in my head and just leaving it at that. Maybe sometimes I’d look it up in a book.

And what does this mean? In part I see that it makes me really aware as a homeowner that I am uncomfortable with fixing things, with taking things apart, and making them work again. I’m afraid to make a mess. Partially because there’s the nuisance of cleaning up afterwards, but also because I’ve never really dealt with this kind of mess before. I haven’t had the chance to explore under someone else’s guidance. And as far as the house is concerned, I’m both child and adult as I begin this process of learning. I’m leaning how things work, I’m pushing myself to explore pieces and parts of the house and how things go together, I’m trying to build the belief in myself that if I take something apart I will have the know-how to put it back together again.

That experience with the sink was small, but empowering. With some perseverance, a little willingness to experiment, some coaching from my mom and encouragement from my wife, I did it — actually my wife and I did it. And afterwards I felt that click in my head, that particular part of my body and brain turn on and get excited. I felt the rush of doing something real for myself and my house. And as a teacher it made me want to bring that rush of excitement, that kind of learning experience, to my students.

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My grandpa’s tool, now mine.

Because truly, how often do they get to explore and play — and with something that can eventually become real and meaningful? Culturally I see that there’s a push for kids to be “college and career ready.” And as a teacher I believe in education. Of course. But the obsession with college and “good jobs” is, frankly, bullshit. We see that the most recent generation of young adults is deep in college loan debt, to the point of being paralyzed by it. And in many cases, I see that people don’t know how to do. Generally speaking, we don’t cook for ourselves very much, we don’t fix things for ourselves, we don’t make or manufacture things for ourselves. Because — didn’t you know? — that’s someone else’s job. Somewhere along the line of pushing our children to be college and career ready we began devaluing and distancing ourselves from the valuable work of taking things apart, fixing things, and making them work again. Which to me is one of the most real things a person can do. It’s a tangible example of our realness and our power in the world outside ourselves.

And as I get of taste of my own realness, my own power to fix and make things, I see that I’m starting to question things. I’m asking, how does this work? How is this put together? Why does it work like this? Is there some way to make this better? Where does this come from? Can I fix this? What can I do to change this? And if I’m asking these questions after fixing one little ole sink, what kind of questions would our kids start to ask themselves when they have a taste of a something similar?

And if I see that I have the power to question, to take things apart, to get messy, to put things back together in a way that makes them better — and to clean up the mess, too — then I see that I can be powerful in other ways, too. And when “powerful people” want to tell me that they’re right and I should fall in line, I can stand in the knowledge of my own power and push back. I know that I don’t have to avoid taking things apart or to making a mess. I know now that I have the power to fix it. And I want the same confident stance for my students and for the future adults of our planet.

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An assortment of inherited and newly purchased tools: vise grip, wrench, pliers.

There is beauty and power in being real, in being here  and doing things that are visible and tangible, things that concretely alter and improve the landscape of our lives. So let’s take things apart — from the humblest kitchen sink to the way we view ourselves and our places in the world. Let’s get messy and work on it together.

Thank You, Body

This week, again, was spent working in my classroom so what I planned to write about got a little derided. However, I think the things I’ve been thinking still apply. So, here we go.

Even though I’m female and I’ve been raised in an American culture that encourages girls and women to be their biggest critics — and even despisers — of their bodies (too fat, too skinny, too tall, wrong hair, wrong skin, blah blah blah) I love and appreciate my body so much, especially in weeks like these.

My body has been my lifelong companion. I mean, duh, obviously, but really — think about that — your body is the only living thing that will be with you your entire life. Not your parents, your siblings, your spouse, even friends or pets. Maybe a tree or a sea turtle, but for argument’s sake let’s just say it’s just you inside your body. And the fact that your body is alive and functioning means you’re alive and on this planet, living a life. Your body is your host and home for the life you’re living and simultaneously it’s a living organism with needs — just like any other living organism. And the profound thing is that this body is yours — and my body is mine — and that body goes with me and does pretty much whatever I ask it. Get up at 5:55am everyday? Okay. Walk briskly and stand in lines and carry heavy boxes and lift bins overhead and climb a ladder and get down from a ladder? No problem. Go five, six hours without food because you’re busy? Well, why not. And in some ways this is an everyday miracle. The fact that I can do and do and do and think and do some more — all while nearly forgetting about my body, having my body be a transparent tool that does whatever I want it to do, is a tiny miracle. And I am so grateful — my body is strong and loyal.

But loyalty reminds me — I have to be loyal, too. My body, my beautiful, miraculous, ever-giving body, needs some loyalty and care, too. Just like any other type of companion or friend, the relationship I have with my body needs maintenance. The basics, yes, like sleep and rest, nutritious food, clean water, a good dose of rigorous exercise — but also love and appreciation. I really do believe that my body, just like any other living organism, can feel the energy of love and appreciation and flourish in that love — and conversely — the energies of dislike, disappointment, frustration, irritation, shame, disgust can bring a body figuratively and literally to its knees. So why not just do it? Feel love for the body — for your body.

Because even when the body gets sick, when the body gets tired, when it falls short in some way that you deem, it’s still there for you, working for you and doing its best to keep you living — so that it can be the tool you need to live the life you desire. What’s not to love about that?

The Home Garden as Revolution

So last week I essentially glossed over my ideas about how and why I’ve been distanced from my food source. There’s a lot in those few sentences that can be unraveled.

First of all, I believe that through our specialization — particularly the kind of ultra-specialization that we have in our society in present time — each of us as individuals can easily lose sight of the whole and our place in it. I live in an urban setting, Chicago, and I do not have to see where any of my essentials come from, be it food, clothing, shelter, even toiletries or entertainment goods — unless I go out of my way to research, which let’s face it, would probably be online. As a result, I can get further and further into my own rabbit hole, focusing on manufactured problems and topics, like sports, celebrities, fashion, online personalities. You’re online right now reading a blog, so I’m sure you know exactly what I mean. However, when I stop to think about the underlying, root cause of all this, the main thing that I come back to over and over is money, and particularly creating false desires.

Think about it:  from the day you were born, you’ve been getting messages on who to be, what to have, and how to get there. Some of those messages are from your usual trusted sources, like family members who are invested in your health and well-being. But a huge amount of those messages are coming from marketers whose job is to sell you something — even if you’re not old enough to have a job and use your own money — you’re being sold a thing, an idea, a solution to your problems. But I don’t have problems, you say. Sure, but the way that so many products are sold is through implying that you can be more than what you are right now, and don’t you want more? Isn’t it a problem that you aren’t now what you could be, if you just had a little more? Be happier, healthier, stronger, fitter, cooler, richer, more than whoever you are and whatever you have right now. Our brains are inclined to problem solve, and marketing messages tap into that.

Once that level of desire is set in motion, and it’s not examined from time to time, it’s a cycle that carries on and on, maybe with no end. And to satisfy these desires, to solve these problems, to become better, we need money. To get money, we need to work. As workers, most of us are in industrialized, specialized work. And I know the word industrialized usually brings up images of factory lines, heavy machinery, all that. But it doesn’t have to. Most of us have jobs that do not see a task through from start to finish. Doctors are specialized to an organ of the body or a type of cancer. Mechanics are specialized to the type of car or car part. Engineers are specialized to the type of materials or scale of project. I’m not saying that your family doctor should perform your root canal or a civil engineer should design a NASA rocket, but there’s something to be said for seeing a task through from start to finish — how it all works, from small to big and from big to small.

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What does all this have to do with having a garden? Well, the way I see it, when I’m pulled away from what I believe to be my more essential state — a living thing who inhabits a living body on a living planet — it’s easy to become lost in wanting stupid shit that I’d never want or care about in the first place. When I’m in what I believe is a more essential state for me — a humbled human who tries to live in communion with her planet, who tries to respect other living things, who strives only to take what is needed and leave the rest, who works to harmonize information about her past with her present experiences and future wishes, who wants to live joyfully and timelessly — there’s nothing that can be sold to me. All the shit in the sale bin seems unnecessary, a useless and distracting trifle that keeps me from living and being.

So the garden reminds me of that. It keeps me accountable and grounded to my experience on this planet. The plants remind me that everything takes time, patience will be rewarded. The plants’ signals teach me to be reliable and to be present everyday, to be observant of changes, no matter how small. The little critters that surround the plants, crawling, flying, hopping, burrowing, teach me tolerance up to a certain point, and then how to take decisive action. The air and light touching the plants remind me to appreciate fleeting moments and to meet all types of days, sunny, rainy, cloudy, with openness to possibility and surprise. And the garden shows me, very directly, where my food comes from, how long it takes to grow to maturity, and the distances it may need to travel before reaching my plate — that wanting more is not necessary. I have more than enough.

And the revolution comes with knowing these lessons. Because being alert and cognizant of where things come from may change our outlooks on life, on consuming, on having more and being more, on buying and working for the money to get more. The revolution is personal — and can seem small — but it can grow big. The revolution is in having the awareness of the whole, having the awareness of the external demands for us to feel less than whole and to buy something to fix it. The revolution starts when those feelings and tendencies are recognized and instead of falling prey to blind buying or unconscious consuming we pull back, see the game, gently put it to the side, and step out into our gardens to marvel at the powerful earth and our place in it.

Basil & Being on Earth

IMG_3126Years ago a friend and I planned to make caprese sandwiches. You probably know the one:  crusty bread and soft, white mozzarella, slices of tomato, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and a few basil leaves. I’d been growing a basil plant all summer, so I happily offered to bring some over to his place. Once I arrived and put the fragrant, green leaves on display he asked where the rest of it was. The rest? It took a lot out of me to cut off the six or so leaves that I brought. How much basil did he want? He laughed and it all worked out in the end, but that basil — and particularly how I treated it — has been something I’ve turned over in my mind ever since.

Since birth, we humans — at least the ones brought up in a Western culture — are taught to think that we are better than everything else, better than the rest of nature. When we are asked to describe or picture nature, there’s nature out there — animals and plants and maybe even whole habitats or ecosystems — and then over here we have humans. They are separate. And even in their separation, humans are on top of the pyramid, at the center of the circle, in control, stewards, captains of the ship. And throughout history we have selected certain species to accompany us outside nature, our domesticated species like livestock, but also our pets, our cats and dogs, and apparently even our plants. And I realize now that much like a specially loved cat our dog, I had been treating my basil plant like a pet. I wasn’t really treating it like a plant that had a natural or biological function. Because when the time came for me to use it as food — rather than as a green companion — I struggled. I didn’t want to hurt the plant, to affect its future growth, to mar its beauty. And again, that makes me question. Why?

As a person born and raised in an urban setting, I have never been close to my food source. The closest I’ve come is farmers markets on the weekend or apple picking in the fall. Other than that I can live in a world where I don’t come into contact with any of humanity’s working and domesticated species:  wheat, corn, orchard trees, dairy cows, the list goes on. And this distant relationship further supports my identity as superior to the nature that is out there as well as my patronizing attitude towards our domesticated species. However, humans are not separate from nature. We are a part of nature. Every human settlement is part of an environment, an ecosystem, and every human body is a singular instance of biology working its way through a day and life by interacting with other biological species. Time and again I’ve seen examples in books like The Wild Life of our Bodies and in videos like the one about the Yellowstone wolves, we’re never alone, a singular and independent entity. We’re all in this together.

So if humans collectively realized that we are not separate from nature — there is no reason to pretend that we are not a part of this planet — and that the hierarchy of species is a man-made invention, then what? Where would that put us?

We’d be down in the web with every other living thing, lowered to their status — or conversely, all living things would be raised to our status. And that leveling off of the hierarchy, that ending of the master over nature narrative, would ask more of us because we wouldn’t be thinking of only ourselves, our comfort and preferences, the continuance of our habits to the detriment of all else. But we’d be thinking of the earth’s plants and animals as our supporters and workmates, living alongside us striving as much as we are to thrive and grow. And we might start to think how do my actions affect the whole? rather than how can I feel best or get what I want now? And I imagine for myself and for many others we’d start to realign our attitudes, our thoughts, our behaviors, even our purchases and how we spend our time, to a different set of values — values that would question the conditioning we’ve experienced to buy and consume almost nonstop, values that would question assumptions about what is enough, values that would question the ethics behind what goes into the production of much of what we buy. Because if I hold a plant or an animal in equal esteem with myself, if I see it as an equal contributor to my health and happiness, and the continuation of a healthy planet overall, then that changes everything, doesn’t it? And the I hope that the next time I clip a few leaves of basil off my plant, savor a chunk of creamy mozzarella, or rip off a chunk of bread from the loaf that I’m not just eating to eat, but I’m aware that my actions place in the web of life as a thankful and shrewd coconspirator in Earth’s continuing abundance.