“Eat the butter,” a friend joked when I posted a photo of sweet, buttery cookies that I’m “giving up” for Lent this year. She thoughtfully linked to a news story in which Pope Francis recommends that we consider giving up indifference to others this year. I very much appreciate the wisdom, and that brief exchange made me want to delve deeper into the mechanics of Lent and other religious practices – Ramadan, Yom Kippur – that offer opportunities to pray, repent, fast, and do good works or give alms. Because of the universality of this practice, I’m removing Lent’s religious coverings to get a better look at the biophysics and metaphysics of these four exhortations.
In my part of the world, it’s early spring, and all sorts of agitations are afoot. The weather is changeable, windy, and wet; it can be hot one moment and very cold the next; the light is bright against black shadows. Baby lambs, children, teenagers and adults alike experience growing pains. In the university where I work the students are in the “grind” part of the semester: the gloss of starting has worn off, and the fruits of their work are still months away. This season goes so much more smoothly when I add a daily session of quiet and meditation. While an ideal diet of quiet could be a half hour in the morning and another in the evening, I’m convinced that even five minutes a day is a good start. The benefit of sitting quietly, perhaps focusing on my breath or on a positive thought, is that it gives me a chance to come back to center in the midst of all the external agitation and change. Blood pressure drops, breath can deepen. A prayer of gratitude generally arises from that quiet.
To repent means to rethink something, and to try to do better. When I repent, I let my mind jump out of the track of an old habit and give it a chance to start a better habit. This year, I’m trying to cure myself of unconsciously using (and throwing “away”) single-use plastics. I’ve also been wanting to get back to public transportation. Baby steps work best for me, so I’m jumping on the light rail every Friday, and bringing my mug with me to coffee shops.
Like so many others, I have a sneaky part in my brain that sees Lent as a chance to lose weight. This year I’m facing that head-on. Lent is not about losing weight, but in a funny way, it could be. Think about how it used to be before planes flew produce around the world all year long. In the Northern hemisphere Lent is the season in which our larder of last fall’s potatoes and apples grows thin – we’ve been eating roots and heavier foods all winter and treating ourselves with sweets (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day) as a spark of brightness in the long night. But now the ground is giving forth lettuces and young dandelion leaves, a tonic of sweet and bitter greens that fortify our livers. So the period of Lent has corresponded with eating less. But the call to fast is also the call to sacrifice something and to take that energy and pour it into the next practice, which is giving generously. Energetically, these two practices are both sides of the one coin; less for me, that I may give more to you. So this year I am abstaining from what I call luxury foods, and also not eating until I am actually hungry. This clarifies my relationship with food (I’m one of those emotional eaters) and frees up my energy for the next practice.
Do good works/Give alms
I hope I’ve established that quitting something without giving to others is not the point of the Lenten or Ramadan or Yom Kippur practice. It’s not just about me – it’s about having a loving heart and helping to create stronger social ties and heal our world. When we intend to do good, at least in my experience, the opportunities come thick and fast. This year I’ve been working with a committee to alleviate student hunger in my school, but then the flood in San Jose arrived and I can do something there, too. Lent is also a great time to write encouraging letters to others. There’s no shortage of opportunity.
Finally, this is a season with a beginning and an end. We are human; we need discrete practices that approach and recede. This chance comes every year; this year I strive to do my best, and accept that it will be imperfect. Six weeks is a good length of time to practice new habits, and maybe my meditation and public transportation habits will stick around even longer.
But give yourself a fighting chance at this—it’s not enough to just decide what to do on Ash Wednesday and then hope for the best. Track the progress. Find a small notebook and give a sheet to each of your practices. Ignore the failures—take failure out of the equation. Instead, every time you have a success, make a tick mark. I said no to pastry twice yesterday, and passed the bowl of chocolates at the counter. It was a secret delight to whip out my notebook and make three marks. See how many marks you can amass in the next forty days. Build the good habits, and allow openness and the curiosity to see what other thoughts arise about yourself, about creating a better world. And be prepared for joy to arise -- not at the end, but all the way through.
I was staring at my tiny phone screen too long and too often. It was time to drive East four hours from the San Francisco Bay and look at something completely spectacular.
Around Manteca the geological and arboreal strata began to shift. Nut trees and vineyards were gradually replaced by rolling, golden hills, which turned into to steeper, black oak-covered hills with ancient outcroppings of basalt boulders, lava remains.
The dirt turned red approaching Copperopolis. A climb of the Old Priest’s trail put us in the land of sugar pines, sinuous manzanita, and tall incense cedar. We kept climbing.
No matter how many times I’ve made this trip, nothing all the way past Groveland prepares me for the shocking beauty of the descent into Yosemite Valley.
Mark, and I spent a long time staring at El Capitan last weekend. We stood on the valley floor and gazed up 3,000 feet to the top, maybe from the same spot where Chiura Obata painted in the early 1930s! The deep blue November sky made the whites almost painfully bright. Formed from a single chunk of granite, El Capitan is considered the largest granite monolith in the world.
Millions of years ago, these mountains lay buried beneath five miles of solid rock. After meandering rivers and streams slowly wore away the rock to reveal the granites, more rapid rivers carved steep slopes and canyons. Then a glacier took eons of slow weight and power to sculpt and polish the face of El Capitan.
It’s easy to get impatient when a video doesn’t load immediately, or when an e-mail goes unanswered for a few days. Look to something massive. Think about something slow. It’s good for my fevered brain.
At the end of summer I signed up for a semester of Yoga and Ayurveda studies in San Jose’s brand new Meru Institute. It’s been rewarding to meditate and learn about ancient Yoga philosophies and the history of Yoga in America. I’ve enjoyed lectures on the basics of Ayurveda and Sanskrit. But last night I got homework that made me turn right back into a teen rebel.
The homework is simple enough. Eat very simply for three to five days. The menu is basic and wholesome: Fruit (in abundance) for breakfast; salad or steamed veggies and brown rice for lunch; steamed veggies or vegetable soup and brown rice for dinner. Green or herbal teas. That’s it.
I broke the news to my husband last night. “No meat, bread, dairy, sugar, no coffee,” I moaned emphatically. “Not even nuts, beans, or seeds. I’m going to have headaches and probably break out. This ruins our anniversary dinner!” Said dinner is four days out. I half-expected him to roll his eyes and agree that I shouldn’t do it.
Instead, he was quiet. And within a few minutes I realized it was just homework, I could do three days instead of five, and that’s only nine meals. Instead of having to adhere to a complex, specific diet, I was given carte blanche as long as I followed the simple guidelines. No one was telling me to count calories—just eat until I was full. Where exactly was the suffering? I sighed. “OK, I get it. You’ll support me in doing my homework,” I said. He nodded.
Now, the homework was assigned with two goals in mind. First, it’s a quick and gentle re-setting of our systems, a method of finding out what we are heavily dependent on and perhaps lightening that dependency. The second, as is with all spiritual “fasts,” is to remember that we are more than just our body, and more than our clamoring mind. Every grumble, every headache, is a chance to remember.
I’m already two meals in. So far, I’m not suffering. This morning it was a bowl of chopped apples, which is all I had, but I went to the market and am already dreaming about tomorrow morning’s baked pears and banana. Lunch was brown rice and steamed carrots, broccoli, cabbage, string beans, and zucchini half-moons. I added chopped avocado and olive oil (allowed) to the last of the rice. It was delicious and filling. Tonight I’m baking a butternut squash, an onion, and an apple, and blending everything into soup.
I can’t remember when I was so excited about vegetables.
What would you make for your nine meals?
Exactly one hundred years after the Panama-Pacific International Exposition reshaped my home town of San Francisco, I stood at the gates of the Expo Milano 2015. I'd always wanted to go to a World's Fair. That's where the ice cream cone made its debut (St. Louis, 1904). And the Ford Mustang (New York, 1964), baker's chocolate (1867, Paris), the telephone (Philadelphia, 1876), and color television (New York, 1939).
World's Fairs, like Burning Man, leave behind extraordinary works of public art, such as Seattle's Space Needle (1962), or San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts (1915). Which one, or ten, of the futuristic buildings constructed outside of Milan will be left standing for the next century? Too soon to tell.
This fair has a serious mission. From now through October 2015, 140 countries show the best of their technology to answer to a vital need: being able to guarantee healthy, safe and sufficient food for everyone, while respecting our planet and Her equilibrium.
The Expo website says it beautifully: "On the one hand, there are still the hungry (approximately 870 million people) and, on the other, there are those who die from ailments linked to poor nutrition or too much food (approximately 2.8 million deaths). In addition, about 1.3 billion tons of foods are wasted every year. For these reasons, we need to make conscious political choices, develop sustainable lifestyles, and use the best technology to create a balance between the availability and the consumption of resources."
To get this message out, Milan created a park to host more than 20 million visitors in six months.
My day at the Fair with my husband and daughter left me with this impression: Colossal. The Map is deceptive; it makes you think you can cover everything in a day. No way. Not only is it a long, long walk, with buildings on either side (and behind each other) packed with things to see. This wonderful drawing will give you an idea of who is participating, and here are some jaw-dropping photos of what their buildings look like. Not only are there events everywhere, and concerts in the evening. No, there's something even more colossal, even more wonderful and at the same time, rather terrifying. Every single country has provided restaurants offering its own cultural dishes. (Including, apparently, a country called McDonald's, which we did not visit).
Starting at the back end (accessible by tram, no crowds), we sampled the best Indonesian chicken satay ever, followed by Turkish coffee and Pomegranate juice. Wandering, we gazed at a massive face at the Slovenia Pavilion, next to its Andy Warhol Café, admired the mirrored overhang of the Russian Pavilion, and dipped into the Sultanate of Oman to see how fishermen and bees contribute to the economy.
The Expo had broken the Guinness Record for the World's Longest Pizza that day; a few thousand patrons wandered by with their wafer-thin cheese square. I was not jealous for our family had stumbled across the most amazing Brie-and-Speck pizza in a cafe that featured a Table of Elements for all pizza ingredients.
I was sorry to have missed the food at the Azerbaijan Pavilion. But this could not be a walk of regrets. Rather, it whetted my appetite for more world travel. Germany showed off a brilliant public wooden bench that had lounge sections and an overhang shaded by plants. We need those here. Ecuador's building was like tropical plumage. Japanese dancers danced, Iranian women drummed, and Venezuela showed virtual sea creatures over our heads.
We had considered skipping the U.S.A. Pavilion, being Americans with 139 other countries to learn from. But it was actually too cool-looking to skip. American Food 2.0 featured massive vertical farms with cabbages and leeks and corn overhead, swinging to capture the sun. Inside we watched some intriguing videos that showed America as a country of innovative immigrants, deeply concerned about regional barbecue, fruit & kale shakes, and taco trucks, a multitude of different beings brought together by the inherent generosity of our bizarre festival of Thanksgiving. You go, U.S.A. Did I mention that Michelle Obama had visited just the day before?
One of our companions felt overtired, hot, and snappish, but perked up instantly in the refrigerated rooms of the Italy Pavilion's Expo de Vino. Here, more than 1,300 bottles of wine rested behind glass, separated by Italian region. Swipe your card, get an Automat pour. I was glad for the generous hunk of Parmesan they gave us, with a long, thin breadstick. As we continued, I also noticed open gyms with treadmills and bouncy balls every quarter mile or so, and good large restrooms with ice-cold water in the taps.
Learn about the Expo here-- and absorb whatever strikes your fancy. We don't know which new technology or behavior is debuting at this World's Fair, but it's safe to say it will become part of our planetary food consciousness.
My book launched with its attendant fanfare and then quieted down within the expected ninety days. Since then I’ve been in an uncomfortable state of transition. I have a couple of books in messy progress, but no buyers for them and no incentive to finish them this year.
I need an income and miss the comradeship of working with an office team. The job search has begun, though an upcoming trip overseas prevents me from throwing myself into the search 100%. So I’m neither here nor there, not very solvent, and feeling a little guilty.
It’s the worst time to stay at home, though puppy, garden and my library do their best to keep me there. About a month ago I was really, really down. Searching job sites unleashes waves of detailed information. Piles of email notifications arrive daily. Some job descriptions remind me of skills I don't have, while searches on LinkedIn tell me that 885 other people applied for the same job as me. Like many thousands of others, I write persuasive cover letters and keyword-loaded resumes, and they sail off into silence.
Enter MeetUp. One day I found my way to the site and started to pick out Meetup groups to join. Fancy meeting other human beings in a neutral place based on a common interest!
The first group I attended is called Shut Up and Write. What a boon to an isolated writer. I met five people in a coffee shop. We opened our laptops and chatted while we got settled. After fifteen minutes, everyone shut up and wrote for an hour. Two people worked on their novels, another on her thesis, another on game development, and we had a blogger. It was SO helpful to hear keys tapping around the shared large table. Win, win, win.
Then I started taking walks with Vintage Women. We explored new parks and neighborhoods. One day Meetup suggested a job networking group called CSix Connect. As formal and volunteer-driven as a Toastmasters meeting, CSix presents a chance to dress up and network, which pushed me into a better career groove: after the first meeting I cut my hair and ordered fresh business cards. Through the CSix meetings I found a subgroup that studies the sustainability and renewable energy industries in my area, so that I am finally connecting my interests. My current elevator speech: "I can evangelize green technologies!"
The first event with Unstoppable Women of Silicon Valley netted marvelous conversations with women who are on interesting, inspiring career journeys. I came home with ten follow-up action items, feeling excited.
There are four events to prepare for and attend this week, and who knows what might happen from them? It’s a little scary meeting all these new people, but I can see that it's radically increased my mental diet of positive, interesting information, and enlarged my sphere of connections across the
I took a Sustainable Vegetable Gardening class at the community center. Taught by Master Gardeners, the class met weekly for two hours. I arrived with a dismal record for keeping vegetables and plants healthy. The land in our back yard is a tightly compacted clay that has already broken a number of my husband’s picks, rakes, and shovels.
My goals: Learn about soil; feed my own compost and amend my soil; grow one thing (probably a tomato plant); and learn what plants attract bees, butterflies, and ‘beneficial insects.’
Results: I learned that I am not THAT into gardening, and decided not to build veggie beds this year. Yet I gained an almost rapturous appreciation of soil. Did you know that 2/3 of a plant’s biomass lives underground? That soil is the living edge where earth and sky meet? That the processes which occur in the top few centimeters of the earth’s surface are the basis for ALL life on dry land?
2015 has been declared an International Year of Soils. Awareness of soil is profoundly important to how we understand food security, water availability, climate change, and the alleviation of poverty.
One teaspoon of composted soil (which is fluffy and smells good) contains more than 40,000 different species of yeasts, algae, and molds; seven miles of fungus filaments; 10 trillion bacteria, 100 billion fungi, 10 billion protozoa, five billion nematodes and larger critters. Fairly bursting with life.
Influenced by the classes, I began feeding my lackluster compost pile with coffee grounds and all our fruit and veg trimmings, and watering it regularly. It suddenly began to act like compost! Then I put a mound of this black gold on the roots of an anemic azalea and watered it with our shower-catching bucket. Now that azalea is putting out the biggest blossoms I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t that hard.
The class offered some unexpected benefits: Tips and pamphlets about drought tolerance, worm composting, handling all kinds of garden pests. A bag of mixed seeds for a wildflower garden that will attract beneficial insects! And two baby milkweed seedlings, the preferred food of the Monarch butterfly.
Along the way I picked up (and planted) a baby fig tree, a healthy tomato plant, golden and silver thyme, and three fuchsia plants. So far they are all still living, the thyme even thriving. This was a useful action.
Yes it’s a dry spring in California. Nonetheless plant and vegetable and tree roots inch along, lengthening as they reach for water and warmth. That word ‘lengthen’ shares a root with the Festival of ‘Lent,’ also occurring now.
The Catholic season of Lent is about removing distractions, sending our own attention and energy inward and downward, a forty-or-so day meditation before we flower into action. Indeed, a radical action is one expressed from our root.
I attended a gathering of about four hundred souls last weekend, a mix of farmers and urbanites, natives and immigrants, scientists, writers, artists, meditators, gardeners, and activists — we filled up a whole school in the town of Point Reyes Station. At the conference, called Mapping a New Geography of Hope, we listened to really thoughtful people getting at the root of things. The planet is heating up. People are acting badly. Others do healing and reparation of wrongs done to our forests, cultures, and oceans, and still others create necessary visions and plans for a good life on a healthy planet with sustainable, balanced systems.
Which gave me the questions to ponder:
· What do I love too much to lose?
· What will I do to protect what I love?
· What does the Earth ask of us? With my own talents, what are my responsibilities?
· What can be gathered from our ancestors, and from local ancestors (for me Silicon Valley and the Bay Area), that will help us heal our land and water?
· How am I letting my attention and body be colonized by corporate interests?
· Why are rhinos, bears, monkeys and sharks being slaughtered to extinction for increased sexual potency?
· How can I, in a nation that uses 30 times the resources of other nations, calm my own consumer desires?
· How can I shape the next chapter of the Silicon Valley / Bay Area story?
In January I went to a silent retreat for the first time.
There I sat on a cushion on a mat, facing another soul in a room of about sixty, feeling my poor, overstretched knees go numb yet again. How did I get to this wretchedly uncomfortable place? Before coming I could MAYBE meditate for 20 minutes, a few times a week, and had always felt positive that more than a day of silence would be intolerable.
We had been kind of tricked into it, you see. My mother had met a teacher of zen koans in New Mexico, and now he was offering a winter retreat in Santa Rosa. I explored his web site and I'm pretty sure that nowhere on the site were the words, “You will sit thirty minutes, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk fifteen, sit for thirty more, walk for ten, and then have breakfast. Then start the whole thing over from breakfast to lunch, from lunch to dinner, etc.” Had they been there, even a hint, I probably would not have signed up.
But here we were. The first two days were hard, hard, I’m not going to lie. My brain was not used to being held to a schedule and screamed at me all night long with crazy rhymes and bits of music and chatter. But then it got better. By the fifth day I felt stable, spacious, and integrated, the way I used to feel before adolescence. All through the week I noticed the sounds of silence:
6 a.m., many people in a dark library lit by candles. We've all had a sip of green tea and, here and there, stomachs growl.
The shaft of morning light lengthening as it finds its way down the wall.
A barefoot teacher walking very, very slowly across the carpet and bowing to students.
The collective silence of people eating, eyes downcast to preserve everyone’s privacy. In this space, I discover the miracle of how extraordinary simple food tastes when you are not busy chatting about something to someone.
The warm silence when a morning fills with bird calls, and then they all cease.
The peace of one's tiny room upstairs, very different from the meditation hall.
Students pondering a koan late at night by the fireplace. Space to hear the cracking and snapping of a lit log.
Within that mysterious palace of silence, my spine grew and my senses sharpened. Gladness grew in my heart. Was it that simple? We carry our breath wherever we go.
One morning I walked through the garden. Across an expanse of brown twigs, the tangy coral of crab apple blossoms shouted out to me.
“When artists and professionals regularly accept responsibility for their actions, they shape deep, rich, and evolving pictures of who they are, pictures that permit them to act consistently with emerging notions of their authentic selves.” Intentional Practice & The Art of Finding Natural Audience: A Framework for Artists and Professionals.
Marc Zegans is a poet in Santa Cruz, California who provides creative development advice to artists, musicians, actors, directors, and other creatively minded professionals such as therapists. He wrote a brilliant, very slender e-book a few years ago and put it on Amazon at such a ridiculously low price that it should already rest in the toolbox of every artist and professional.
I recently re-read it and was reminded of how I want to function as an active, authentic, ethical artist and minister, and where my natural audiences might be. Based on my working session with his book and his penetrating questions, I now know exactly how I will overhaul my website and blog in the next few weeks so that they more accurately reflect who I am.
If you want to know more about Marc and the many creatives and professionals he’s helped, trot on over to www.mycreativedevelopment.com.
Meanwhile, here are two more of many, many gems from his book:
“Your natural audience isn’t everyone you can pull into the room; it’s the group of people who have a good reason to be there.”
“Often, we claim that authenticity and integrity demand distance as a rationale to cover our fear of engagement. When such claims are based in fear, there is nothing authentic about them. We are using a ploy to protect ourselves from finding out how good we really are, what we can do when we have resources, and what we will do when we don’t.”
A week before the book was to launch, I grew so restless. I paced and fretted. I had completed every task I set out to do for the book. What would the launch look like?
Every day that week I watched the title rise in Amazon ranking from about a millionth place to as high as 131,000. It went down a lot, too! So I stopped watching before it became too stressful a habit.
On December 2, at 12:30 in the morning, I woke up and learned what the launch looked like: Satisfaction. Joy. All alone in the dark, I felt a very steady sense of accomplishment. The book is published and can live on its own in the world.
Later in the day I checked back in with my feelings, over a latte and pear-ginger croissant. Yep, that steady warmth was still there.
That evening I had some dear friends over and we laughed and chatted over lasagne. I opened a couple of tins of blackfish caviar, and a few bottles of
Sofia sparkling wine. That good feeling? Still there.