“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.
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.
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.
What makes you feel wealthy? I don’t mean measuring the size of your bank account, but the wealth of having enough, the feeling that as long as I have this, I’m OK.
One recent emblem of abundance for me has been having a bowl of coral-gold persimmons on my table. Especially when they come from a neighbor’s tree -- they can be expensive in the market! When I see the bowl, I know that I can have a sweet, luscious snack every day if I feel like it, and it will be good for me. The color just makes me smile.
I did not know how to eat fuyu persimmons until my friend, Jocelyn, modeled the proper fuyu eating stance. We were having a discussion and I watched as she took a persimmon and a small, sharp knife. She simply carved slices off the persimmon and handed one to me. I was shocked at how good it tasted. The other kind, the Hachiya pictured here, might need a long time to ripen into jelly, and can be eaten with a spoon.
Here is the other thing that makes me feel ready to take on the world: I realize how old-fashioned I will sound, but I feel wealthy when I can carry postage stamps in my wallet. Especially those with brilliant pictures on them of dancers or musicians, or wise men and women of history, or flowers. I know I can mail anything on the spur of the moment—an urgent bill perhaps, but more importantly, a fan letter or a thank-you note.
I hated it as a child when my Mom made me sit and write thank-you notes after Christmas and birthdays, but now I'm glad she did; years of experience have taught me how simple it is to jot a note, find the address, add a stamp, and pop it into the mailbox. You never know what a huge impact a little letter in the mail can make.
As I came to realize how many authors work in a vacuum of silence, just like me, and how their books get published to a little fanfare and then get swallowed up by even greater silence, I realized that fan letters are as important as thank you notes. It was a little intimidating, writing to the first author I admired, but I am so glad I did. She sent me a brief reply on a postcard that showed a watercolor painting of a French bakery. Nourishing indeed!
I think stamps mean so much to me because of times in the past when I was traveling and did not have the money to eat more than once every couple of days. I really wanted to send a letter to my family, but did not have the postage, let alone enough to place an international call.
So yes, my wallet contains two sleeves of stamps. And I have clean, warm socks on my feet. I feel like a million dollars, and I think I’ll go eat a persimmon.
Here are some thoughts about weddings, writing, and the world. Enjoy.