Tuesday, September 21, 2010

METAMORPHOSIS (How I Became The Butterfly...)

If we had not been in silence, the afternoons long and full and wordless, senses of sight and touch and smell heightened without the web of words weaving through the air to connect us, I might never have noticed the butterflies, wings fluttering ever so slightly on the surface of the water, these butterflies trapped by the weight of their own dampened wings, unable to fly.

They were so elegant, delicate, helpless.

One by one, I plucked them out of the pool, gently holding each one on my fingertips, up to the sun so the wings could dry. One by one, I sat with them for minutes that stretched on like quiet hours, the second hand on the clock above the pool slowly circling around, seconds ticking away while their delicate orange and black wings dried.

I watched them gently moving in my hand, the hind and fore wings stirring, the thorax and proboscis used to sip flower nectar bending with the wind of my hot breath. These creatures were small, complex, miraculous.

After about 10 minutes when the wings were dry and flapping open, I would shake each butterfly off my hand, and scoop another one out of the pool.

They were my personal symbol, a metaphor for my own transformation. The massage therapist who had kneaded my shoulders and back earlier in the silent retreat, trying to free me of my anxiety, told me as she rubbed my shoulder-blades, “I feel four sets of wings growing in.”

Four sets of wings. Which angels were these sprouting wings out of my back, I wondered?

Surely Eric was one, my guardian angel, the man I loved who had died when I was 22. Surely my grandfather, my mother's father whose sky blue eyes and thousand-watt smile I had inherited.

I didn’t know who was responsible for these other sets of wings. Maybe I was turning into an angel myself over time, after all I had suffered and learned.

Going on silent retreat was new to me. Here I was, camped out on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, on a ranch once owned by Jane Fonda and where Michael Jackson had donated the money to build a theater.

I was there with 25 other students, devotees of my yoga and meditation instructor Dina, who was teaching me how to love myself again, how to open my heart and soften so that I wouldn’t talk to myself in such mean ways. For such a kind woman, I could be ruthless with myself.

I couldn’t remember ever not being that way, ever since I was a child prodigy and adults fussed over me and told me I would be great at everything. I appreciated the attention, and was terrified by the pressure. How would I save this planet of ours, and keep it spinning on its axis, when wars and poverty threatened to make it implode, our beautiful blue and green sphere crushed by the weight of all the hate in the world?

Fixing the world felt like my job. Well into my 30s, I had never gotten over that, even after earning degrees from Princeton and Harvard, organizing events for Hillary Clinton, working for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and being asked to run for mayor of the small city where I’d lived before moving to SF – Troy, New York.

That is why being on retreat for a week in total silence, rising each day at 7 a.m. to meditate, doing yoga for four hours a day, phone turned off, computer at home, nobody calling me or emailing me or counting on me for anything, felt like such a relief.

Here I could just be, simply enjoy the luscious sweetness of every bite of ripe papaya, raspberries, peaches, pineapple, apple, drizzled with yogurt and sweet coconut and raisins, as I spooned it into my mouth in the morning. Here I could just lie in the grass for hours, lazing in the sun like a cat, stretching out to catch the rays, sliding across the grass to a new golden patch of light when I fell into shadow as the sun dipped west.

Sunsets over the cliffs were dazzling, skies striped in pink and purple, the sky dropping away, earth falling straight down in a sheer wall that bottomed out at houses, one mile down, with the city of Santa Barbara in a lit-up grid beneath us, and the ocean beyond that.

The next year when I returned for the same retreat, the scene would be different, the skies filling with smoke and the trees in the distance leaping with orange flames. The wildfires were creeping closer and closer, and we eventually had to be evacuated.

The helicopters swooped in overhead, diving down to scoop up baskets full of water and rushing back to pour it over the flames, creating a hissing cloud of steam over the forest, again and again. I felt like I was in an action adventure movie.

And my life certainly didn’t need any more drama. Nor did I want any more fires.

Before I chose the butterfly as my metaphor, I thought of myself as the phoenix rising from Greek mythology. These birds were identified with the sun and said to have a life span of 500 to 1,000 years. As the end of its life approached, the phoenix would build a nest of myrrh, set it aflame, burn down and in three days rise again.

That had been me. My story was one of renewal and rebirth.

The worst of it happened between ages 20 and 22, while I was in college. Young, naïve, Princeton undergrad, an accidental overachiever who aced every class in high school without trying and now had to put some effort in, I was fumbling my way through college, as any mildly depressed, overweight co-ed feeling out of place at a school full of rich and pretty people might do.

During Christmas break sophomore year, I drove south from my parents’ house in Massachusetts to a friend’s party in Rhode Island. I didn’t want to get drunk, knowing how awful it felt – vertigo, throwing up, passing out. Been there, done that.

I decided to only have two drinks that night. I just wanted to hang out with my friends and relax.

At some point during the night, someone slipped something into my drink, and the rest of the night was erased, except for one slice of memory in which I was lying on my back in the backseat of a car with a man pounding into me and dark glass behind that. The man who raped me left me passed out half-naked in the back of his car.

It was my guardian angel Eric, who I was sure was responsible for at least one of the sprouting sets of wings the massage therapist talked about, who found me in the car, carried me inside, cleaned me up, and put me to bed.

I remember none of this, only that when I woke up in the morning and saw the face of my rapist in the kitchen, bright white countertops glaring in the sun, glasses of orange juice on the counter, and his countenance – I wanted to kill him.

I never filed charges because I thought I would be the one put on trial. I moved on with my life.

I took a year off from Princeton to figure out what to major in, since I’d drifted during my first two years. When I returned to school, I was a jubilant English major, writing poems and reading 19th century Victorian novels, ridiculously happy to bury myself in books again, which had soothed and comforted me as an overly smart, shy child.

During the winter of my senior year, I started dating a local starving artist, a “townie” who lived in Princeton but did not attend the university. Alan was six feet tall with sculpted muscles, a toned and hairless chest as I would soon find out, almond eyes, café au lait skin, a chiseled jaw. He was half-Black and half-White but looked Latino. He was impossibly handsome.

He had been courting me for nearly a year, chatting me up in the student center rotunda café. I had steadfastly ignored him but eventually he roped me in by offering to do a pen-and-ink portrait of my family, modeled after a photograph. I was so touched that he created this piece of art for me that I agreed to go on a date with him.

The first week was okay, consisting of dates at Burger King which he could manage on his budget, a bottle or two of cheap champagne that we drank before stumbling back to my dorm room, and smoking cloves in the student café. By week two, my intuition was flashing red neon signs saying “Run fast!” and I was just as steadfastly ignoring them.

Alan had started to display another side of his personality, which included telling me “jokes” about how he was going to kill me. “That’s not funny, Alan,” I’d say, and he’d always just laugh and shake his head and say, “I’m just kidding baby, take it easy.”

One day in the basement of the dorms while folding his laundry, I discovered a pair of orange pajama bottoms with the word Trenton Psychiatric Hospital printed on them, and Alan’s last name stamped on the waistband. I froze, terrified, told Alan that I needed to get more coins for the dryer, ran back to my dorm room, and locked myself in, heart pounding.

Who was this man? What was his history? What should I do?

Mouth dry, palms wet, I finally talked myself into confronting him. He’d been strumming songs on his guitar while I did his laundry, and he set the instrument down and began to unravel the crazy story. He’d apparently already been arrested for stalking a woman who “couldn’t take a joke” when he’d threatened to kill her, he said. He had kicked out the back window of the police car when they arrested him. He had impersonated a crazy person, he said, going ballistic, so they would put him in the psychiatric ward instead of in the jail overnight. Apparently, it worked.

God only knows why I did not break up with him on the spot, but I didn’t know how to, and felt that maybe this was my fate. I’d been reading tragedies for my English class – Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde. Perhaps I would die young at the hands of my lover. Perhaps that was my path.

That March, as I was struggling to figure out how to leave Alan, who was getting more crazy by the day, I got the phone call that my beloved angel Eric, who I’d known and loved for nine years and who I felt sure I would marry one day long off in the future once I got all my silliness and insecurity out of my system, was back in the hospital for surgery again.

Eric had a condition called Marfan’s Syndrome, a congenital disorder of the connective tissues that had weakened his aorta. He had survived open heart surgery at 19 and took impeccable care of his health, walking every day, taking all the required pills, altering his diet, and even giving up basketball, the sport he most loved.

He was training in college to be a sports photojournalist, so he could document the sport he loved, since he could no longer play.

I could see Eric and myself years into the future, as his family’s lakehouse in Maine, a rolling tumble of children – our children – falling off the couches, laughing, as we loved and laughed and lived, a happy family together. I felt sure that would happen – someday – although in the interim I dodged his attempted kisses, too frightened by the tenderness I felt for him, and too sure that I would hurt him if I did not get my own wildness and confusion out of my system first.

Obviously, he would live a long life, and obviously we would be together someday, if I could only survive Alan’s craziness.

Instead, one Friday in March, while I was up late trying to write another essay about a tragic love story murder-suicide, I found myself playing sad love songs, Mozart’s Requiem and U2’s With or Without You, Eric’s and my favorites, staying up all night. I thought I was going to die that night. I thought Alan would finally break in and snap my neck and it would just be over.

At 7 a.m. I finally collapsed, sleep drugging me and knocking me into bed. Two hours later the phone started ringing, and ringing. I refused to answer it.

Somehow I knew. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want the truth.

I was alive, and Eric was gone. He’d gone into the hospital for surgery number two, and survived the night at St. Luke’s Hospital in Texas. In the morning at 7 a.m. his heart exploded.

I was inconsolable. This was not supposed to happen. This man was my future, once I got my own life straightened out.

Suddenly my life split in half, into my life with Eric and my life after. He was gone. I was suddenly shocked awake into my own life, fed up with Alan’s craziness, since he had kept stalking me after I finally broke down and had him arrested, and it took five men to pin him down to drag him flailing and shouting out of my dorm room.

I was no longer willing to leave my future to fate. I moved out of state, back into my parents’ house, and spent the first three months back there planning a memorial event for Eric. I withdrew from school for the semester. I couldn’t stand it that he was gone, and that I’d never had the chance to tell him how much I loved him.

Tall, lanky, gangly Eric, the gentle giant, the captain of our high school basketball team when I was a cheerleader, with front teeth crooked from a childhood sledding accident, and the big span of his hands that liked to pat me on the head, Eric with his caramel brown eyes, knowing looks, the way he’d look at me sideways, shaking his head, Eric with his winning smile, was gone.

That summer was a blur. I spent it mostly smoking pot with Eric’s sister Niki in the basement of their mom’s home. I couldn’t deal with life for a few months, but by the fall was ready to go back to school. This time I moved to Boston to live with a junior high friend, taking classes at Harvard and UMass Boston and transferring the credits back to Princeton so I could finish my degree.

I felt him around me all the time. I convinced myself I would be fine. I went to see a therapist now and then, telling her about the rape, that it wasn’t a big deal to me, telling her about Alan, saying I was over it. We talked about Eric and she tried to assuage my guilt that I had never told him how I felt.

Somehow I knew that he knew that I loved him.

One year and three months after Eric died, I graduated from Princeton. It was 1995 and I was 24. I was ready to take the world by storm, get a job at a fancy publishing house in NYC doing editing, and to write my own books.

Until my world started to collapse, the ground crumbling beneath my feet, feeling as if I was sliding off a cliff with no roots or trees or rocks to grab onto. Suddenly I felt into a state of paralysis, unable to perform simple actions in order to move my new career forward. Suddenly, I felt as though I’d screwed everything up and my life was over.

Suddenly, I was in the middle of a nervous breakdown that no one had anticipated, plotting my own death. Would it be by knife, gun, noose, an overdose?

While my family frantically tried to keep me alive, I focused only on my suicide, knowing I had to end it. I snapped. Years later, I read and learned about post-traumatic stress disorder, and with all my poor young body had been through in two years – the rape, the stalking, Eric’s death – then trying to pretend everything was “fine,” it was no wonder that I lost my mind for a while.

At the time, all I knew was that I felt sure I had ruined everything, that my life was over, that I needed to die.

So I took every pill I could find from all the prescriptions the doctors had me on to keep me tethered to reality, and mixed it with anything else I could find – Tylenol, drugs in my mom’s medicine cabinet – swallowing dozens of little white pills in one fell swoop.

When I woke up in a stupor, limbs limp like noodles and so waterlogged that I couldn’t move, trapped in my own body, I knew I was still alive. “Okay, God,” I said, “I guess you still want me alive. If there is a purpose for my life, I really wish you’d show me what it is!”

The next fifteen years of my life would become a frantic search for just that. Why was I here? What was I supposed to do with this life of mine?

Obviously I was still alive, and obviously the world still needed saving.

I tried on so many hats – should I go to divinity school to pay homage to the God who had saved me from myself? Should I be a “real” writer, which was what my heart longed to do? Should I work in marketing, which is what seemed more practical? Should I run for office, which is what people in my town started recruiting me to do after I morphed into a neighborhood leader somehow…. What exactly was I supposed to do with this one life?

The years flew by in a flurry of activity and an outward display of happiness, despite the fact that I would spend nights in a panic, locked in my bathroom, a cell phone in one hand and a knife in the other, still convinced that someone was going to break in and kill me. I got really good at hiding my terror and anxiety. It was my little secret.

Somewhere along the way, I got married, became a dance instructor, metamorphasized into an accidental community leader, traveled across several continents. I kept achieving, accumulating possessions, striving to be the good wife, citizen, daughter.

I pretended that I had no dark past, only happiness.

And yet the soul is wiser than that, and if it needs healing, sometimes the surface will start to crack. Things fell apart. My marriage ended. My job with the mayor of San Francisco ended. My sublet at my apartment was up. I was living in San Francisco with no income and no job.

Miraculously, things re-aligned for me quickly. A graduate school friend of mine asked me to move into her palatial Pacific Heights home, for free, until I could get back on my feet. I bumped into two Harvard-educated landscape architects while sipping tea at a picnic table by Crissy Fields. They spotted my Harvard baseball cap, found out I was trained in strategic planning, and promptly hired me.

My teachers started finding me – yoga instructors, meditation teachers, wisdom teachers. I was too stubborn to seek treatment for PTSD, and so the universe kept throwing healers at me. One by one they introduced me to new techniques to help me calm my nerves and feel more at peace.

Suddenly this formerly overly agitated and restless overachiever was sitting still for minutes at a time, meditating. Suddenly I was upside down in downward facing dog, practicing in a lineage that spanned thousands of years.

Suddenly I was finding some semblance of peace.

Fast forward five years. It was 2010 and I was living in upstate New York, where I had moved to put my house back together. My ex-husband and I were about to sell our house as the final piece of our divorce settlement when our tenants accidentally set it on fire.

It was around this time that I decided that my symbol should not be the phoenix rising anymore, that the universe was obviously taking my metaphors way too seriously, and that I would become the butterfly instead, emerging from the chrysalis to become a creature of flight and exquisite beauty.

After spending a year rebuilding my house, I started focusing again on building out my career. I really wanted to write books, although I was terrified of tackling this lifelong dream of mine. I also wanted to find someone to love.

I was more peaceful than I had been years earlier, having cultivated a daily meditation practice, with fewer sleepness nights due to the panic attacks, less consistently agitated. My stomach did not churn all the time with worry – just occasionally.

I had steady consulting work and even took the brave step, for me, of telling my story for the first time. I was the keynote speaker at the Take Back the Night rally for victims of sexual trauma. It was utterly terrifying and also liberating. I had spoken the truth out loud, and nothing happened. My friends were still my friends. My career did not fall apart. No one ran away screaming accusing me of mental illness, the prospect of which had terrified me since my breakdown years ago.

I was still just me, living my life, and I finally decided that it was time to write my story as well, to show others that they could recover from something so painful and build a happy life.

Life in general was good from the outside. Yet I still often felt like the chrysalis, wrapped in my cocoon, still hibernating with episodes of mild depression sometimes, still wondering why things wouldn’t align in my love life.

One day, I decided that I’d had enough of my own suffering and drama. I really wanted just to live my happy live, make my dreams come true, and not to stew in the memories of what had happened to me, or what could have been. Something broke inside me again. I just wanted to live.

I sat down and wrote a pledge to myself that I would absolutely live all of my dreams. I wouldn’t let fear stop me. I wouldn’t let my past or my stories about any limitations I imagined I had stop me. I would write my book. I would meet my soul mate. I would raise a family. I would be peaceful and happy.

I signed it, tucked it into a drawer in my desk, and forgot about it.

Suddenly those four sets of wings sprouted. Suddenly I was taking off and not even knowing how. Everything in my life turned around. I found a spiritual teacher who embodied all that I had ever wanted to learn, fervently made a wish to meet him, and much to my shock and surprise found myself spending most of the month of August with him. He was teaching his first workshops in the US, although his home base was India, and I organized them for him. He taught in my town, and stayed in my house.

Suddenly my career dreams started to click into place and take shape. I was nearly 300 pages into my book, which told my redemption story. People who read my weekly blog, which talks about living my dreams, asked to hire me as their life coach.

Suddenly I met the first man I have really liked in a very long time, and thought to myself, I think I just met my husband.

Suddenly everything I’d ever dreamed of seemed to be coming true. And suddenly, it didn’t even matter whether it all materialized or not, because I was profoundly and deeply aware in every cell of my body, suddenly, that every day I have on this planet is a gift.

I tried to end my life all those years ago. Alan wanted to kill me. I was given another chance.

Feeling like a miracle, I have been walking through the days of my life glowing, shining with happiness, so that the people around me want me to drink it in, want me to be the genie in their lamp, want some of my illumination to rub off on them. Suddenly I am so peaceful that I have forgotten how to worry.

Suddenly I realize that I am the butterfly, that my wings are dry, that I can fly into the sunshine over the cliffs, be who I want to be, and that my past is now over.

Suddenly I am simply, beautifully me.

© Lisa Powell, September 2010

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Year of Fire & Ice

An act of kindness can melt even the coldest heart…

Driving into Troy that day, the trees were glittering, branches coated in ice as if they’d been dipped in glass. The sun was out and water dripped down like crystals falling. The world was sparkling, magical from my perspective, warm in the car, bundled up, untouched by the cold.

Yet the effects of the storm had been devastating. The region was blanketed in ice, trees bowing under the weight of it. Many were down, and with them, power lines, and for several days much of the region went without power – no electricity and in some cases, no water or heat. How could it be so beautiful – the trees were jewels – and yet so merciless in taking out the current that brings people light and heat.

My sweet housemate invited friends to stay with us so they wouldn’t have to pay for hotels or suffer in the dark and cold. December in Troy is chilly, and the temperatures were still hovering around freezing, although the sun made it feel warmer.

Back in Troy, NY, back in a small-town community of 49,000 with neighborhoods where the neighbors actually know and watch out for each other, it was comforting somehow to see people reaching out to give their neighbors a hand when the lines came crashing down. It was a microcosm, a view onto the world and how intrinsic kindness comes out, people reach beyond their own selfish impulses, when others truly need help.

The city is truly a place where neighbors find connection and comfort in each other, and where how interconnected we all are becomes obvious. Everyone knows everyone else’s business. You bump into 12 people you know when you shop at the Farmers’ Market, or walk to the post office downtown. The news of a separation or dating relationship, of a house sale or a job lost or a promotion or a baby, often hits the streets quickly and it’s generally a mystery how it got disseminated. Who was the source? Through what pipeline does the news flow? Mouth to mouth to mouth, flowing like water or electricity, the news travels, so it’s impossible to keep your anonymity here. Yet when the power’s out, your friends take you in.

Troy is a little bitty city. You could fit it in the palm of your hand, compared to NY or San Francisco. The streets are in miniature, like something from a movie set of historic Victorian Brooklyn – and in fact, movies about Victorian Brooklyn are sometimes set here. As you approach the historic downtown from Second Street, where I live, the buildings are no taller than four stories and the trees arc over the street and at the end of it there is a monument, a statue of a woman with a trumpet on a pillar overlooking Monument Square at the heart of the city. It’s only two blocks to get from my house to the entrance to the downtown, and two more to get to Monument Square.

Everything is little bitty. You could walk the whole downtown easily in 20 minutes, and that is if you cross-cross back and forth to hit every street. The grid that comprises the central part of downtown is essentially four streets deep by six streets across (from the river to the foot of the hill that climbs up to the RPI campus). Twenty-four small city blocks, with the usual array: some cafes, some restaurants, some galleries, some antique shops, a bookstore, some banks, a post office. And the not-so-usual: a world-class Music Hall where Yo Yo Ma records his music, the historic Proctor’s Theater, not currently in use but still intact, houses from 1825 and a historic plaque dedicated to a famous Harriet Tubman visit to Troy.

Troy is beautiful, and working class, and creative, and hi-tech, and backwards in terms of its politics, and rough-around-the-edges. It is poorer than most cities of its size, with a lower than average per capita income, yet was once the fourth wealthiest city in the nation. It boasts one of the world’s great technological institutions, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and yet City Hall is still low-tech and “best practices” is a foreign concept in city governance in Troy. Troy is a city of contradictions, and that perhaps is part of why I like it. Like the rest of us, it’s a work in progress, beautiful and flawed, organically evolving and waiting to see where its future leads us…
I didn’t mean to land back here so soon, despite my love for this little community. I had been having a perfectly good time camping out in beautiful San Francisco, the Paris of the West Coast, “Baghdad by the Bay,” the American city with the Mediterranean feel. I fell in love when I first moved there, staggered by the beauty of the city by the bay – the forty-two hills, the vertical descents that could give a person vertigo, those steep thrilling dips as you drive over the edge of a street, like a roller coaster, the Victorian houses climbing the hills, painted like wedding cakes, elegant and frosted.

San Francisco took my breath away, and not just from climbing those steep hills – from the way you could glimpse the ocean or the bay from just about any high vantage point, how the city is surrounded on three sides by water and overgrown with wild flora – beautiful princess flowers dropping their purple petals on the sidewalks, roses blooming in January, overgrown lollipop bushes like something out of Dr. Seuss. Dazzling.

And the people – so eclectic, so embodied, there is a sense that you can BE who you are in San Francisco, and celebrate that, and it’s okay to be whoever you are, dress however you like. No one will blink. Walk around in platform heels and a silver gown, in torn jeans with tattoos all over your face, in a dog collar, in a mink coat, naked and no one cares (okay, perhaps those from PETA would protest the mink coat). It is true that it is something of a free-for-all there, very easy to be and celebrate being a free spirit.

I thrived in that environment, blossomed all over again, started dressing in more fun and provocative clothing again (because I can!), learned to strut, learned to sing in a gospel choir, took belly dancing. This city just makes my soul expand. It is too beautiful for words and it amazed me that people could walk the streets every day and take that for granted.

And yet, and yet, in some people’s worlds there things are so dark, they are so broken, they live so low to the ground – literally - sleeping on cardboard boxes and grungy blankets, in doorways and on stoops. Their world is dank and it often reeks of urine and I just could feel the despair weighing heavy in the air when walking through these neighborhoods, like the Tenderloin. When you personally are broken, when your home is the outdoors and a cold sidewalk, when you have to wait hours in line every day for a meal, and beg for a quarter, I don’t think you necessarily see it – the beauty of the city by the bay, the beauty of its buildings, art, flowers, people. You are just struggling to survive.

Humanity is amazing – the capacity for survival and what can be endured, and the capacity for change. I have been tested this year too and it was not only the year of the ice storms, when ice like glass coated the trees, but the year of fire for me. I am glad that year is over, and have switched my personal totem/symbol from the phoenix rising to a sunflower – rooted, grounded and yet growing toward the sun, blooming where she is planted, opening her face and petals to shine her beauty on everyone, planting seeds of love everywhere she goes. That is what I see as my symbol of the moment - and I am looking for one of a bird too, the one in me who flies, the free spirit, soaring, and I don’t know yet what kind of wings, if I’m a hummingbird, which I may well be, a bright little jewel moving so rapidly the wings are blinking, or a chickadee, or a soaring eagle (perhaps too masculine for me?). I’ll find her, my new bird…

The old one, the phoenix rising, is extinguished as a symbol for me because there were so many fires in my life this year, and I want to move on from that energy – the energy that says you have to burn things down or destroy in order to create. I don’t believe that, I believe it’s possible to plant seeds in healthy soil and start WHERE I AM and create beauty and grow and spread my joy from there… not necessary to tear down and rebuild. I want to grow from where I am, and be happy. This is what I choose for my life.

The fires – there were three – like anything major in our lives, changed me. The first was the fire in my own house when my tenants accidently started a grease fire. Nine months later, I see the blessing in it – my house has undergone $60,000 worth of renovations and has a new kitchen, new dining room, new bathroom, new master bedroom, newly repainted façade, and it’s gorgeous, and it suits my temperament, and I love it.

The second was a fire in Santa Barbara where I was away on yoga retreat in July. After watching the flames climb along the hillside 1,000 feet from us for three days, with the smoke billowing and growing into larger clouds, and the orange flames licking the air, leaping 30 feet high, we were asked to evacuate. Wild times, helicopters swooping overhead, my car-mate and I quickly exiting the building after taking a few last fire pictures to get back safely to SF.

The third was a fire in a church the night of the presidential election. I was in Boston watching President-elect Obama’s victory, in tears of joy, up til 3 a.m. texting friends in California to celebrate. At 3 a.m. in Springfield, MA where I grew up, someone was lighting a new church on fire, burning down a $2.5 million new church under construction. The congregation was predominantly African-American and it smelled immediately of a hate crime on the eve of this new era in American history. It too brought tears to my eyes, of disbelief and shared suffering and sadness that someone could DO that.

It brought me back together with my first-grade principal, Bryant Robinson, who is now the bishop of that church. I went to a multi-faith service put on in downtown Springfield where Bishop Robinson spoke. Before the service started, I approached him to introduce myself. He was moved that I was there, and in fact introduced me to the whole congregation from the pulpit when starting his remarks. He said he knew that God was up to good, even in this fire, because he had met a student of his again and saw what a beautiful young woman she had turned out to be (referring to me!). It was a blessing.

I went up to thank him after the service and told him about my fire, how we had rebuilt my house, how although it would take time and prayer and effort and hard work, I knew they would rebuild theirs. How wild that it took two fires to bring us back together. I am forwarding word of the fire to those at Glide, my magnificent church in San Francisco, to ask for their resources, prayers and support.

This is part of my Buddhist practice now (fledgling Bodhisattva that I am!) – do good where you can, and do no harm. I am looking to grow in my practice, and we do that by walking the steps and living it. There is so much each of us can do, so many small steps to take and ways to love, ways to reach out to our neighbors. After an icestorm. After a fire.

Our world wouldn’t be what it is without these primal elements – fire to cook and generate heat, to create chemical and manufacturing processes, to help nature recreate and generate itself, as is the case with the fires in the redwoods in California. And ice which allows us to keep foods preserved, sled, skate, cool our drinks, kick off chemical processes as well. Can’t imagine a world without them – fire to heat, ice to cool, one to melt the other.

And yet what gives life can take it, what feeds us can destroy us. We are strong yet fragile creatures, all of us, in this interconnected web of life, and we are interdependent. We need each other for a shelter from the storm sometimes. We need those prayers and funds and helping hands to rebuild what has burnt down to the ground. We could not do it without each other. Every kind or charitable act or word matters.

In this holiday season, I hope that you too will remember, as I’ve been reminded this year so viscerally in my own life experiences, how very connected we are, how very dependent we are upon one another (in the best way!) for our happiness and warmth. Without our neighbors, friends, family, community, without the kindness of strangers, most of us – all of us –would not be where we are today. Every act of kindness in the web, any act, may be the one that helps us find a home, a job, a mate, a shelter from the storm, that makes us laugh or keeps us warm. We are for each other what makes life truly worth living.

So I hope you will find ways to remember to be kind and to practice it and give back and offer a helping hand or a shelter or a kind word or a shoulder to cry on for a friend or neighbor who needs it. When we do this we are also an inspiration and a light for others, a reminder that there is more to life than our own selfish needs, wants and desires. It feels good to give back anyways and studies have shown that charitable actions bring much more lasting pleasure than simple sensual pleasures themselves (of food or sex or other experiences of the body). We are carnal beings, animals, but more than that we have these beautiful souls, and they are fed and pleasured by being loving to one another and giving back. Science has shown it. In our own lives, we can feel it, the joy of it when our boundaries are stretched and we grow by giving, how by shining your own light for others, you glow.

I am grateful to all of those who have helped make my life more warm and wonderful this year. May I always be able to give more than I take and help light up the lives of others. You are lights in my sky and my life. Blessings to you and all of your loved ones during this holiday season, in the New Year, and always.

Friday, November 14, 2008

From the darkness into the light

When I heard the news that Barack Hussein Obama had just been declared President-Elect of the United States of America, I was sitting on a bar stool at Uno's Grille in Swampscott, MA, next to a handsome brown-eyed stranger. I'd driven to Boston that night after arriving in the Hartford, CT airport after four days of volunteering for Obama in Virginia. A friend of mine from grad school had just been re-elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and she was throwing a re-election party at Uno's. I drove the two hours to toast her and to watch the election news in friendly company.

Lori had since taken off to go home and be with her husband and kids as the election results rolled in, and I was swilling beers with the friendly Democrats at the bar. Kevin, the stranger beside me, was a cartographer, I'd learned. Making maps of the world seemed like an appropriate profession right now as it seemed like the whole world was shifting before our eyes. Everything was changing.

Like the rest of the country, and much of the world, I was overcome with emotion at the news. Forty-five years ago Martin Luther King had delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech, and here, now, all these years later, a man of mixed Caucasian and African descent stood before us, judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character as he was decisively elected the leader of the free world.

As the news rolled on, and as he delivered his speech, I couldn't stop crying. Kevin, my friendly neighboring cartographer, rubbed my back and told me how sweet it was that I was crying. It wasn't intentional, it wasn't planned, I just felt the waves of change coming, the magnitude of this historic moment, and what it could mean for the world. As a grad school friend of mine from Germany later expressed it, "The U.S. is moving from the darkness into the light."

From the darkness into the light. Is that what the world felt and responded to? The news showed crowds cheering in Africa, in Kenya where Obama's father was from, in Europe and South America and Central America and Asia. Everyone seemed to recognize that something amazing was happening.

The defeated candidate was gracious. The current sitting president was gracious. Everyone seemed to rise to the occasion in deference to this leader who clearly had inspired the people of the U.S. - enough to get out and vote in record numbers, enough to motivate thousands to register to vote for the first time.

Out of the darkness into the light. What is it about this man? It's more than the color of his skin or the fact that electing an African American man to this post is so historic. It's more about the light that shines from within him, his willingness to stand up and lead in tough times, and his ability to inspire others, to empower the people around him so that they feel they have a voice again.

The exultation in the room and around the world was palpable. For me it symbolized something more too, how we all seek in our lives to move from the darkness into the light, how we all want to stand for what we believe, believe that change is possible, and move in that direction. Too often in our own lives it can be easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae of life, and to feel as though in the broader strokes of our lives, the change and dreams we hope for may not all be realized in this lifetime. And yet we wake up each day to keep trying, to find out what is possible by being in action on our dreams.

When the nation collectively unites to stand for change, and to stand for what is possible, how amazing is that? How can we individually get discouraged when we are standing for all people, when love is what we are standing for?

I remain amazed and grateful to be alive during these historic times, and excited to see what changes are coming.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The world is on fire

"Fire is important to this community because the tiny seeds of the giant sequoia must fall on partially burned or bare mineral soil to germinate successfully."
~ http://www.fire.ca.gov

The scene was surreal, like something out of an action adventure movie. Standing on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, 1,000 feet up, we watched the flames shooting up into the air on a ridge just a few miles away. Bright orange, they licked at the smoke-filled sky, rising well above the tree-line.

The flames must’ve been 20 to 30 feet high. Smoke billowed to the left, following the direction of the wind, yellow smoke closest to the fire, gray and brown as it spread out, white like cumulus clouds as the edges as it dispersed.

We watched the helicopter swoop overhead, flying back and forth from the pond at the ranch where we were staying to refill a giant hanging basket with water, which turned to instant steam when it was dumped over the flames.

We were being evacuated from the ranch right in the middle of a six-day long silent meditation and yoga retreat. “Include this, too, in your practice,” my teacher, a long-time Buddhist practitioner, instructed us as we posed in lotus or yoga asanas on our mats, while the smoke filled the air just miles from where our studio sat, perched above the city.

This was not the first time I’d had to include fire in my practice of growing and evolving and walking through this life. Just three months beforehand, I’d gotten a phone call from my former next-door neighbors while enjoying a Mediterranean meal of lentils and veggies in a restaurant in San Francisco, where I lived at the time.

“Have you heard the news?” my neighbor John asked. John and his wife Joyce used to live next door to me in Troy, New York, and I still owned the home adjacent to theirs.

“No,” I said.

“Your house is on fire,” he said.

Three thousand miles away, I felt powerless to do much of anything, and so had to trust that everyone back in that community would handle it, that the capable fire fighters would put the fire out in time to save our house, that everyone would be okay.

Luckily, the fire crew did get there in time to save the first floor of our house, although the second floor kitchen was gutted and the walls throughout the second floor were streaked gray with smoke. Our tenants, a young couple with a baby, had put cooking oil on the stove, and then fallen asleep, accidentally starting a grease fire. Fortunately they were fine, if shaken up by the experience.

They set our house on fire literally two days after my ex-husband and I had completed our divorce proceedings, with the sale of the house as the last item on the checklist to dissolve our former financial partnership. I was, needless to say, somewhat shell-shocked, and could only shake my head and wonder at whatever greater powers are guiding the course of events.

God must have some kind of sense of humor, I thought, considering that this divorce had dragged on for three years, and that once it was complete, the fire happened 48 hours later. What’s the message here? I thought. What is the universe calling on me to learn? I’m a good person - Where the hell am I going wrong? Of course, rationally I knew that I wasn’t being singled out for punishment, that this wasn’t about anything being “wrong.” Everything happens for a reason, I believe this, and I trusted that the reason for this would become clear with time. Yet it seemed just absurd for this to happen now – of all things, a fire!

Interestingly, fire for me has always been a compelling metaphor and I’d even chosen, years before, the phoenix rising as my own personal mythological symbol. The phoenix is a symbol of resurrection, the bird of legend that would arise from the ashes after incinerating – and this metaphor had served me at an earlier time in my life when my world had collapsed, and I felt as though I was starting from scratch.

I’d also chosen to live in cities that had burned to the ground and been resurrected – Troy, New York which suffered through the great fire of 1862, when more than 500 buildings were destroyed, and San Francisco, which had been savaged by the earthquake and fire of 1906. Both cities had been rebuilt, with even more grandeur than before. I had rebuilt my life and was thriving. Yet now I was starting to question the wisdom of aligning myself with the metaphor of the phoenix, since I seemed to be manifesting fires all around me! What did I need to burn away? What, I wondered, needs to be recreated in my life?

Who really knows the “why” of why anything happens in our lives, yet I felt there was some symbolism here around me burning away old, restricting beliefs in my life, and recreating myself again, without limits. I’m someone who despite my worldly successes and achievements over the years − as a Harvard and Princeton educated strategic planning and governmental consultant, a writer, a community leader who had worked on countless urban revitalization projects in Troy, as a dancer, a loving wife to my ex-husband, a good friend, a devoted daughter − despite all of this I’d often questioned my own worth and sabotaged myself sometimes, in work, life, relationships. Something in my mind, some old pattern of thinking, wasn’t allowing me to fully live all of my life and be all the beauty, love and joy I know I am inside.

The fires seemed as good a time as any to take stock of what had held me back in life previously, and to generate a new life and vision for myself. I decided that it is time for me to believe fully in all the possibilities for my life, in love, work and general adventures. And to know that no fire, no loss of material possessions or even love lost, could take away from who I am inside, the burning passion for life at the core of me, or who I am in this world, which is a bright light.

Now, about the only fire I want to deal with is that of the fire in my belly when I’m taking on a project that excites me, and the fire I feel when I’m wild for a man who tantalizes me. There was a man once in my life whose presence was like a five-alarm fire from the day I met him, just constant heat and light and burning excitement. I like that kind of heat, would happily pour gasoline on the flames to fan the fire. The rest I feel ready to leave behind.

I think I’ll choose a new metaphor, then – the hummingbird perhaps which symbolizes resurrection, optimism, sweetness, a messenger and “stopper of time.” Or the deer, which can symbolize “love, gentleness, kindness, gracefulness, sensitivity, purity of purpose, walking in the light, meditation, longevity, wealth” – all lovely qualities to have in my life!

That said, I have to be grateful for the lessons of the fires. The Santa Barbara fire provided me with the gift of knowing that I could remain peaceful and grounded despite the challenging conditions that were arising. The house fire brought me back to New York to work on renovations, bringing me closer again to family and old friends in a tight-knit community that I lived in and loved for seven years of my life.

In times like this, I also remind myself that the California wildfires are actually a necessary part of the natural process, that the giant sequoia trees need the fire and ash for their seeds to germinate in the soil. I’m curious to see what will grow up next in my life, from the ashes of the fires.

© Lisa Powell Graham, July 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The monk, the caterpillar, and me...

"There is only one question: how to love this world."
~ Mary Oliver, from her poem "Spring"

The sun shone through the 300-foot tall trees of the Enchanted Forest, bright like a North Star above me, shining on me like a benediction through the giant redwood trees. I was curled up in a hammock strung between two redwoods, napping between yoga sessions at the Land of the Medicine Buddha in Santa Cruz, CA where I'd headed for a four day yoga and meditation retreat.

Two of those four days were spent in silence. This was my fourth silent yoga and meditation retreat with my teacher, Dina Amsterdam, who is like a forest sprite herself, lanky and long-limbed, slim and dark and beautiful in an exotic Buddhist-Jewish way.

The retreats follow a certain pattern: arrive in the evening, join the group for dinner followed by an opening circle and an evening meditation, and awake the next day into silence. The practice for the subsequent two days is yoga, meditation and our own time to do as we wish, all of it in silence.

The idea is to help us move into present moment awareness and peace, which can be easier said than done in our rush-rush-rush, blackberry-bluetooth-Ipod-TVO, sensory-overload kind of world. Yet I believe most of us are stumbling and falling our way toward enlightenment in this lifetime, sloooowly evolving (at least I know my own path has not been smooth, linear, or fast!).

Talking about the path toward enlightenment, Dina gave the analogy of moving one grain of sand at a time from a pile which represents the "unconscious," unawakened part of ourselves, into another pile that represents the enlightened being in us. She said that in our regular lives we generally move one grain of sand at a time from one pile to another, in a painstakingly slow progression, grain of sand by grain of sand, as we gradually awaken in this lifetime to our own divine nature.

Dina said her teacher says that a retreat is like a chance to take a whole scoop of sand and pour it into the "enlightened" pile! We are learning tools to help us stay "awake," to live our purpose in this world.

Time away from the chaos of the world to work on our "awakening" is such a gift. A true blessing. The blessings were manifold this time at the Land of the Medicine Buddha. The grounds were filled with monks in their saffron and mustard robes, and I'd often cross paths with a shaven head or two as I walked in the woods, or walked to the dining hall. To respect my vow of silence, I'd simply bow with hands in prayer position - Namaste. I honor the divine in you.

The monks were not in silence this time, but there to receive a Highest Yogic Tantra initiation from the Venerable Choden Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama born in 1933 who was one of the teachers/guides of the Dalai Lama. Needless to say, a great man and spirit...

As ordinary yogis who had not received the Highest Yogic Tantra yet, we were not allowed to sit in on the ceremony, but I got to bow down to him, touch his vehicle (I know, that sounds almost kinky, but I mean it quite literally - I touched his car, which bore the message: "May anyone who sees, touches, remembers, talks or dreams about this car achieve everlasting happiness and have compassion for all living beings"), and do a sitting meditation/prayer in the hall where he was teaching, thus taking the energy into me... All of it, a blessing.

The days were filled with yoga, meditation, prayer, journaling, walking the forest paths, praying in the temples, observing with awe and delight the simple wonders of spring... Lupines and lobelia with their blue and purple splendor, bluejays, butterflies fluttering around blossoms, even the bright banana slugs in the forest, which look like slices of mango underfoot, only they are moving, shining, glistening, with two slimy antenna reaching out to the world... All of it, beautiful, fascinating.

I've been on some silent retreats in the past where the lessons and epiphanies seemed big and dramatic. This retreat was peaceful, restful, lovely, and more simple. No giant lessons descending from the heavens, no opening in the clouds, no deep pain or out-of-body bliss experiences. Simply this message, over and over, which was inscribed on a bench in the forest: "The path is under your feet."

I'd come into the retreat with some questions in mind about love, work, home... I am going through some transitions in my life, all positive, and looking for "divine guidance" to lead me... The message this time was simple. Keep walking. Trust your heart. One step at a time. The path is under your feet...

Walking the forest path on the last day, I was stopped by a monk who asked me "Do you know what time it is?" I had to keep my vow of silence so shook my head no, but then remembered my cell phone was in my pocket (I was using it as a watch!). I took it out and showed him the time and we bowed to one another.

We passed each other again on my way out of the forest, and bowed in silence and respect. This, too, felt like a blessing. I'd been watching my steps, careful of where my foot falls, because I'd noticed the black, white and gold caterpillars that were on the path, inching along, dozens of them, scattered across the earth, one every few feet. Some had been squished already by another hiker, and in my "retreat state" I was feeling an extra high level of compassion for these creatures, wanting to be careful of them, and also to just walk lightly on the earth in general.

Reverence for all beings, for all life, seemed to be another message on this retreat, or rather a reminder. The monk and the caterpillar, equally important, one bowing to me, one below me, one a spiritual guide, one a lesson - to walk lightly on the earth. What is more important? Who can say?

To all creatures of the earth, I say, Namaste, and give thanks for the blessing of a time away like this! I will end with a poem by Hafiz... My wonderful teacher, Dina, conducted a "poetry hour" Saturday night when we came out of the silence, reading poems by Hafiz, Rumi, Mary Oliver. If you have not spent time in the company of Hafiz, 14th century Sufi master poet, I suggest you do sometime! He is funny, wise and wonderful... His poems make me laugh and touch my heart.

May this poem help you to feel deep compassion for all beings - which is what it does for me.

Blessings, peace, love, light!


It Felt Love

Did the rose
Ever open its heart

And give to this world
All its

It felt the encouragement of light
Against its

We all remain



by Hafiz

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Water into wine, Argentina-style...

After three weeks in Argentina, my veins are flowing with red wine. Vino tinto. Vino tinto. Y mas vino tinto.

With bottles of fine wine starting at 20 pesos (approximately $6 US) or less, a father with a sommelier's instincts for the best in wine, and a visit to Argentina's wine country, the sweet nectar of crushed grapes and tannins has replaced my red blood cells. I am a walking glass of Malbec.

I am filled with sweetness too because everything here is topped or filled with dulce de leche. Alfajores cookies, smothered in chocolate, ice cream, medialuna breakfast croissants. Everything goes better with dulce de leche, the thick caramel that I eat by the spoonful sometimes (only in Argentina!). My normally healthy diet of veggies, grains, fish and beans has gone to hell here, temporarily.

I - the ovalactopescatarian - even eat a bite of filet mignon one night after my sister raved in ecstasy about her meat. Argentina is famous for its steak, a beef-eater's paradise. This isn't one of the highlights of the country for a veggie like me, but it makes my father, sister and mom happy as they dine on barbecued pig, ribs and goat. The flesh is succulent, they tell me. Tasty. Delicious. I trust them, skip it, and happily eat more roasted vegetables, pasta, empanadas.

Of course, there is more to Argentina than the food and wine. Mountains. Rivers. Hot-blooded Latin men. Tango. Charming art deco neighborhoods in famous Buenos Aires. Friendly people everywhere who kiss you on both cheeks in greeting, even when you first meet them. Argentina is literally and figuratively warm. We roast in the 95 degree heat, and warm to the gestures and love of friends.

And we bask in the pleasures of a trip like this... We started the week in Rosario, where my sister Carrie and her husband Pablo live about three to six months out of the year. Rosario is the third largest city in Argentina, and is rapidly gaining a reputation as being one of the most enchanting cities to visit in South America.

Famous for its river, historic denizens (Che Guavara is originally from Rosario), and the beauty of its women, Rosarinos also claim that their ice cream is superior to that of Buenos Aires. We do an informal taste test in both cities, and I have to say that my family agrees with this assessment.

The first few days were a whirlwind of family, dining, shopping and holiday celebrations. We arrived the day after Christmas and met up with Pablo's family to toast the holiday season. This mean lots of dinners at Pablo's father's restaurant, where a plate of meat as big as my torso was served. Literally these ribs had to be 2 feet long and 1 across. We cooked asado (Argentinian barbecue) often in Pablo's backyard, and cooled off from the high temperatures by the pool.

New Year's Eve was another good excuse to throw a barbecue. Carrie, Pablo, my parents, my sister Margaret and I gathered with Pablo's brother Mariano, his beautiful Portuguese girlfriend Bea, and Pablo's mom, Cristina.

My mom and Margaret had prepared two big pots full of vegetables roasted with garlic and herbs, a swiss chard and swiss cheese quiche. Bea made a carrot and squash puree. Mariano tended to the meat on the grill for hours, salting it to keep it juicy and then slowly roasting it over the coals. We cracked open multiple bottles of red and white wine. At midnight everyone toasted and kissed.

Then the fireworks started overhead - red and green and white, bursting open in the sky above. We watched and drank and toasted and marveled at all being here together in the Argentina summertime in January. At 3 a.m. it was time to head out to the New Year's parties that last all night long.

This year I skipped the festivities, staying in the yard to hang with Carrie and Pablo, while Mariano, Bea and my sister Margaret headed out. Margaret partied until 10 a.m. and despite being covered with mosquito bites from the outdoor party at a country club was thrilled with the attention from all the Argentinian men. It's good to be a single American woman in Argentina!

We moved on next to Buenos Aires, city of tango and Art Deco buildings and wrought iron balconies and European flair. I would only have one day there because my next stop was Rio Ceballos, a small mountainous town in the Cordoba region.

I was fortunate enough to land an interview with a Zen Buddhist master, Dr. Augusto Alcalde, who also practices Chinese medicine, indigenous herb healing, tai chi and qigong. An unusual Roshi, he also rides a motor bike, smokes a pipe and drinks gin. He invited me to spend a few days at his home dojo, the Rincon Cultural Center.

For two peaceful days, we talked about Buddhism, life, flow, breath, meditation. We ate pizza with olives on top and sipped mate. I meditated in his home dojo, and felt this boundless sense of connection to all beings, a boundless sense of gratitude for every moment in my life that had brought me to that exact moment. I felt lightness, happiness, peace.

From Cordoba, replenished and rejuvenated, I flew to our next stop - Mendoza, in the wine region. Thereupon commenced three days of feasting - including one of the best meals I'd ever had at a restaurant called A Zafran, which came highly recommended by a few guests from the Bay Area who were staying at our hotel.

Wine, wine, and more wine - fine red wines flowing - beet and goat cheese salad, the best gnocchi I've ever had with carmelized onions and veggies, sweet and tender and melting on the tongue delicious, a dulce de leche and coconut torta for dessert. Every bite was exquisite.

Luckily to offset all the eating we had some outdoor adventures as well. I went white water rafting for the first time with Carrie, Pablo and Margaret. We suited up on shore in banana yellow waterproof poofy pants and tops and helmets clicked in place under our chins. We looked ridiculous, like the astronauts who dropped out of NASA class or a yellow version of the Michelin Man.

Luckily those crazy outfits do actually keep you (somewhat!) dry and warm when the icy water splashes over you. And kept my pale skin from frying. We tackled Class 4 rapids on my first time out, which to me at least felt brave!

To stave off any anxiety about being swept into a hole in the water, I treated the whole experience as a meditation, reminding myself to surrender to the power of the river. The water was awesome, swirling and raging, and sometimes we'd ride wild waves of it. The view was spectacular - mountains and pure blue skies as far as the eye can see. I came off the boat feeling exhilarated, happy and slightly relieved to have not gone overboard.

Wine, water, and Buddhist wisdom... It was a magical three weeks. The water in my veins turned into wine. The wisdom of a Zen Buddhist master helped me to feel more grounded, and alive. The time with family was a gift and blessing.

Life, let's face it, is divine...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Giving thanks for this life

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.
- Henry David Thoreau

To your tired eyes I bring a vision
Of a different world,
So new and clean and fresh
You will forget the pain and sorrow
that you saw before.
Yet this a vision is
Which you must share
With everyone you see,
For otherwise you will behold it not.
To give this gift is how you make it yours.

- A Course in Miracles

I don't know about you, but some days the world can just break my heart.

Yesterday was one of those days when I was reminded of how ridiculously blessed I am, and stunned again by what people endure, how much suffering there is in this world. Where do you find meaning, where do you find love, when life feels bleak, when you are on the streets, when nothing in life has mapped out as you planned? How do you keep going? How do you find grace?

Yesterday I met Joseph, in his 80s, white beard, red face, a jack-o-lantern smile with a handful of crooked teeth and open spaces in-between. Fashionably dressed in a white plastic apron, white paper hat, and clear plastic gloves, I poured red Kool-Aid into Joseph's paper cup at Glide (www.glide.org), where my friend Reema and her mom Nora and I were serving meals Thanksgiving day. Joseph was cheerful and a flirt and promised me that if I liked older men, he'd take good care of me.

As the crowd filed in and filled the long tables, Reema, Nora and I poured Kool-Aid and cleared away empty trays with the remnants of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, ice cream. We shared Thanksgiving greetings and flirted with the cute kitchen volunteers who were scraping the trays. And we flirted with the men and women at the tables, because who doesn't want to be noticed, appreciated?

Young and old, black, white, Latino, Asian, they poured in, an endless stream of men and women, some weathered and beaten by the street life, some dressed like any professional you might walk by on a busy city street. I am often surprised by just how many look like you and me, or our friends, or our parents. A man in a San Francisco Giants hat and black sweatshirt, salt and pepper hair and mustache, a broad smile, could have been my dad.

Why I am the one privileged to serve, rather than wait in line to eat, why I get to put on a name-tag and a paper hat and plastic gloves and hand out meals, why I am blessed to live in a spacious apartment with hillside views in San Francisco, enjoy a full day of meals and good times with friends versus lining up outside Glide, is a question for which there is no simple answer. Life is a complex equation.

I come from a loving middle class family, have been blessed with an outstanding education and have so many resources and friends - I am SO blessed! - that this need never be a reality for me. I have never truly known need, hunger, desperation. I have cried of course, had my heart broken, had my own moments of darkness when I didn't know what to do or where to turn next. But they always pass.

My refrigerator is full, my apartment is warm, my Blackberry is programmed with names of friends and family who love me. I know I am not alone in the world. Glide provides that sense of family, shelter, community for those who have none, and it is for this reason that I keep returning. Glide brings joy and hope into the lives of those who have lost hope, helps them hold on, rebuild their lives, start again.

Yesterday I met Donnie at the church service at Glide. Tall, handsome despite missing some teeth, wearing his bluetooth headset, and just about bursting with energy, Donnie whispered Glide gossip to me in between dancing to the rousing numbers of the gospel choir and jazz band.

An ex-convict who'd turned his life around, he'd worked at Glide for seven years, rescued from the streets by Reverend Cecil Williams and the Glide family. He knew the inside scoop on everyone and was happy to share the stories with me. Donnie called out to the speakers and the singers on stage: "Preach it! Sing it! Amen!" We got up and danced together, held hands during the prayers. "I was saved by grace," he told me. "I was saved by grace."

Later that day, I handed out meals with my friend Andoni as part of "Operation Turkey Day," organized by a caterer in Marin who prepares 500 turkey meals in biodegradable paper boxes with the help of 40 or so friends, and passes them out on the streets of downtown SF. Every box was hand-decorated in colorful marker with a Thanksgiving message, holiday greeting or positive words: Joy. Yes. A simple red heart. We passed out boxed lunches, juice boxes and clean white socks. In less than 20 minutes, 500 meals had been distributed. So many hungry people.

As an experiment yesterday, I skipped breakfast and lunch just to see what it felt like to be hungry. My stomach churned and I felt a little nauseous, but I knew I had Thanksgiving dinner coming up with friends at 4:30. No real hardship here.

At 2:30 I broke down and ducked into Sears Restaurant on Powell Street to order up a steaming plate of fish and chips, just because I could. I was craving fish, and had my wallet in my pocket, and there was nothing stopping me from ordering a big plate, pouring vinegar on my fried cod, dipping french fries into tartar sauce or ketchup.

The restaurant was about half-full on Thanksgiving day, with couples scattered around eating plates of turkey and all the fixings, most of them in silence. Companionable silence? or lonely silence? I find it striking sometimes how many of us seem alone or lonely even in a room full of people. At most of the tables, with a few happy exceptions, there seemed to be an absence of laughter, of joy. Even with so much, people are lonely.

And here I sat alone dipping my french fries in ketchup and taking in the scene. Perhaps to stave off my own loneliness, I called my family who were gathered for a meal in New Jersey, across the country. I talked to those I love who are far away, as the phone got passed from my mom and dad to brother and sister, Grandmom, aunts and uncles, cousins. They missed me. They love me. They can't wait to see me at Christmastime.

I ate half my meal, boxed the rest, and offered it to the first man I saw sitting on the street. His face and hands were raw from the sun and street living. He was probably younger than me, but missing most of his teeth, ragged, looking bereft. He nearly broke down when I offered him the meal, red eyes shining. "But I'm not allowed to ask women for nothing!" he protested.

I felt the heartache of a man holding onto a promise he had made to someone, words that still held meaning for him, even when he had nothing else left. "But I gave it you," I said. "You didn't ask."

"Thank you ma'am, thank you ma'am, thank you ma'am!" he shouted.

Two hours later I headed to the home of Betty and Ernie, friends of mine in their 80s who are my "adopted grandparents" in SF. I wrote an article about Ernie, a retired sign-maker who hand-crafts carnival games, for a local paper and we became fast friends. They told me to consider them "like family." When I decided to stay in SF for Thanksgiving this year, versus flying home to be with family as I usually do, they invited me to their home to share the holiday meal.

I poured miniature marshmallows on top of the bubbling sweet potatoes for Betty before she popped them and the wheat rolls in the oven. I whisked instant mashed potato mix into a boiling pot of water, milk and butter until it was thick and creamy. Ernie set the table and poured us glasses of white wine.

Four of us ate dinner together - Ernie, Betty, me and their son Bob, who is an alcoholic in his 40s who still lives at home. "I'm an isolationist," he told me. He holes up in a little cluttered room in the back of the house. During dinner, he got up often to refill his beer glass.

"This is the first time I've had dinner with my parents in about two years," he told me, when Ernie and Betty got up to get the pie and clear the plates. "I have nothing to say."

Yet he kept up a steady stream of conversation, as we sat and talked for four and half hours, the whole family, about politics and spiritual practice and the general state of the world. Bob is widely read, but lives in his own world. His body has been ravaged by the alcohol abuse, nose red and pocked, teeth brown, legs skinny in ragged jeans.

He still has dreams. Don't we all have dreams? After dinner, he offered me a shot of tequila from a bottle that he said he'd found on the streets of Mexico years ago. He told me about his dream - to be a war correspondent in Iraq. He'd served in the army years ago and traveled, and felt he'd have a unique perspective to offer. "How do you think I could get there?" he asked.

I told him my journalistic work was much more local, stateside, and that I didn't know the path to get there. What can you say? He drank himself silly, taking a slug directly from the bottle. "I shouldn't be drinking this," he said.

"I guess you don't know much about my profession now," he said. "I work in commodities." He recycles bottles, scavenges on the streets, picks up an occasional odd job - gardening or painting - to buy his bottles of beer. This is his "career."

We all have dreams. We all have stories about ourselves and our lives and how we've ended up where we are, and when it's too hard to face the reality, some turn to booze, or sex, or money, or food, to try to fill the hole inside. We all feel lost sometimes and we all have our own ways of coping.

Some of us are blessed with better coping mechanisms, intact family structures, good work that pays the bills and then some. We have so much, some of us, that we can afford to take fancy vacations to far-off places, buy gifts for our friends and family, take a day at the spa, sit at home and make art.

I am one of these. I go away on yoga retreats. I’m going to Argentina to visit my sister for Christmas. I am privileged beyond belief to be able to sit here in a warm home, keys clicking as I type this, hot cup of tea beside me, a closet full of clothes, shelves full of books, walls hung with art collected from my travels around the world. I do not take any of this for granted.

I have been blessed with joy and abundance in my life, with peace of mind, and I do my best to give that back. Some days I feel like there is so little I can do to make an impact, with so much suffering in the world.

But I do what I can, where I am, with what I have. I shine my light because I feel that it is my duty and responsibility in this world to give back, and it is my joy. I give because it replenishes me. I shine, because I can.

And I choose to focus in my own life on all the JOY - my family, my friends, my writing, my dancing, the beautiful city where I live, all the blessings of every day. What we focus on increases. The Buddha teaches that in this life there will be pain - sickness, old age (if we are lucky enough to live a long life!), death. We can't escape from the reality of life in this body.

And yet, he also teaches that suffering is optional. It is possible to find freedom in our own lives from the suffering created by our own thoughts, and to share that sense of freedom with others. That is my practice and my path, and I do my best to walk it every day.

I send my love to all of you today, who are the true blessings in my life, and ask that we all just remember on this holiday how very blessed we are, and that we reach out with compassion to others in the world who are suffering and broken, when we can. That we shine our light and share our joy, those of us who have so much.

That we do what we can to make others feel less alone in this world.

May you have a blessed holiday season, and always know that you are loved.

Lisa Powell Graham, November 2007

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Journey inward: six days of silence in the Santa Barbara mountains!

"Life unfolds chaotically and magically."
~ Dina Amsterdam, yogini and spiritual teacher

"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."
~ Charles M. Schulz

I spear a piece of fruit, and lift it to my mouth. Papaya. Another bite. I name it: Blackberry. Slowly I chew and swallow. The California sunshine warms the air and my bare skin. I am up above the cloudline, and I gaze out over the Pacific Ocean at the foot of the cliffs below me. More slow, delicious bites.

I name them: Pineapple. Nectarine. Green apple. Raspberry. I have drizzled whole milk yogurt and coconut on top of the fruit. I have sprinkled California raisins on top. How can there be so much sweetness and flavor in one bowl? Each bite is a small burst of pure pleasure in my mouth.
What could be more sensuous ~ and sensual ~ than a silent yoga and meditation retreat?

Six days of silence, yoga and meditation has a way of awakening the senses that have been dulled by busy-ness, the buzz of too much thinking, too much living in the mind. Re-immersion, my friend Will called it. Re-immersing yourself in the true life, the world beyond the confines of our thinking mind.

There is something about practicing zazen (sitting meditation) and yoga for six hours a day that shakes you out of your thinking mind so that you re-arrive, expectant and overly sensitized, in your physical body. Everything tastes better. Your nerve endings come alive. Frankly, being on retreat is sexy. At least, this is how it works for me.

It seems paradoxical because the Buddhist path also teaches that overindulging in sensory pleasures is one of the ways we can distract ourselves from our true purpose, one of the ways we bury our feelings and "escape."

Yet feeling truly present in the body and the moment makes every moment beautiful, the pleasures of simply being alive intensified. I truly feel and experience the world around me. I am not anasthetized to its pleasures. Hallelujah, Amen!

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the grounds where we are practicing on this retreat are rolling, green, flourishing. We are perched on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, California, with panoramic views over the city and the Pacific Ocean.

Jane Fonda once owned this land, years ago, and the current owner graciously makes the land available for retreats like this one, providing the opportunity for people to reconnect with silence, peace, themselves - their own sense of inner stillness and expansiveness.

We are practicing on sprawling acres of green land, laced with flowers, trees, breathtaking cliffside sunset views. There is a pool near the edge of the cliffs, and a hot tub perched right on the edge where you can contemplate the cosmos at night while soaking in bubbles, muscles massaged by firm hot jets of water.

There is a pond on the edge of the grounds where you can lie on a raft (clothing optional!), letting the sun warm and dry your bare skin, and where you can swim right up to a patch of lotus flowers and drink in their sweet fragrance. I plucked one to decorate the altar in the meditation room, adding my own perfumed offering symbolizing the Buddha, to the collection of flowers, rocks, and scraps of papers scrawled with handwritten notes that were already there.

Here on this lush land, 30 of us circle each other in silence every day, on the same grounds, sharing the same yoga practice room and teacher, but each locked in our own inner world. Some happily, some not so much so! We all ride waves of bliss and a spectrum of other emotions here, from sadness to numbness to anxiety to fear. Our teacher, Dina, talks us through the periods of daily yoga and meditation to guide us, but we remain in silence for a full four of the six days we are here, dipping into it again briefly on the last day.

Incidentally, many, many people who have known me over the years, who know that I am a Myers-Briggs ENFP (a big extrovert!) might wonder, and justly so, how I could possibly remain totally silent for four full days. Amazingly, to me as well, it is much simpler than I ever imagined, and more replenishing. It is peaceful and calming to be in such a quiet space, and to work on continually quieting the mind. It is wonderful to see what arises in such a space.

Sometimes I step outside myself briefly to watch all of us here, and imagine how odd we would look to someone just visiting - we walk around in silence, eat meals at round tables without making eye contact, circle around each other as we make our way to hike the trails or lie in the hammock, never greeting one another. No waves, no hellos, barely even the faintest of smiles dancing on someone's lips. We exchange no signals to indicate that we are in communication with one another.

Because we're not - for these six days, our job is not to relate to the world, as we incessantly do on the outside, but to relate to ourselves. To journey inward. I wish everyone could have the chance to experience this at least once in a lifetime.

It is not all fun and games here. When entering deeply into silence, we are often forced to force whatever unwelcome companions we've been locking away inside. What fear don't you want to face? What part of you feels most unloved? Chances are, it'll float right to the surface while you're sitting cross-legged on your meditation cushion, or upside-down in Downward Dog.

On this retreat, for me, that meant facing the fact that I tend to avoid emotional confrontations. Perhaps from some deep-seated desire to make everyone happy around me, to be liked, to have everything be "okay" all the time, I have had a tendency to procrastinate sometimes on dealing with issues that instead percolate underneath the surface, until they reach their eventual boiling point and spill out into the world.

Of course, when I avoid dealing with troublesome situations or emotions, I instead have to live with fear and anxiety in the interim of how things *could* turn out. Often, these "meantime emotions" are much worse than whatever happens once I actually face my fears, as I have seen borne out time and time again, when I confront things and what was a source of anxiety resolves itself, melts away.

Suddenly, facing myself in silence here at the retreat, avoidance just doesn't feel like any kind of solution anymore.

I also face the fact that I have not always been great at loving myself no matter what. I profess to want to practice unconditional love in this world, and the truth is that if I am to do that - it has to start with me. I have to love myself even when I'm tired, down, sad, angry, blue, worn out. I have to love myself when I'm performing at the top of my game, when everything is going my way, AND when it's not.

This means changing patterns of aspiring toward impossible standards of perfection, and then beating myself up when I (of course!) can't reach them, which has been a long-standing pattern of mine. Retreat brings me face-to-face with myself again and I see what I need to do. Love myself first. Love myself completely, no matter what.

It is clear that this is what I am to learn right now, what life needs me to learn in order to take the next steps in my life, and be transformed... Who knew it could be so hard to be truly tender and kind to yourself, when it comes so easily for many of us to love others?

It is like I am developing real intimacy with myself for perhaps the first time ever by being brutally honest with myself, but at the same time doing so with gentleness and kindness. I am looking at myself in the mirror with love, but am also able to say - this is how it is, this is who you are, accept yourself, love yourself!

I find myself wondering why it can be such a challenge for women in particular to love ourselves completely. Of course, we are bombarded with voices in society that would have us believe that we are not enough, we need to be skinnier, prettier, we don't look like this or that model or have the thighs of a sixteen year old anymore, and therefore are not truly beautiful, not enough.

The truth is the opposite -it is our unique qualities that truly make each of us beautiful. Why can't we all learn that sooner? Why so many years of suffering?

Retreat becomes a place where we are tested, where we learn to sit with our own uncomfortable edges, face our own fears. It can be difficult to sit with unpleasant emotions.

We are so accustomed, as a society, to fleeing from them by turning to television, alcohol, food, sex, or anything else that will numb us from truly feeling deeply whatever most hurts, whatever feels shameful. There is a sudden liberation in learning to accept the wide range of human emotions we all experience, and not only to accept, but to embrace this range.

First, we have to learn to sit still. "No fidgeting," says Dina, her voice floating disembodied from somewhere in the front of the room. "I am the fidgeting police."

I am still. My eyes are closed. My hands are resting gently, palms face down, one on each knee. I am sitting cross-legged on the edge of zafu, or meditation cushion, my coccyx bone raised about three inches off the ground to give my spine more length and elegance. My left ankle is positioned snugly in front of my right ankle, knees wide, in a sort of modified lotus position.

There is a small gnat buzzing around my head and I resist the urge to swat at it. This time is all about stillness. Turning inward. Not giving in to the sometimes intense desire to move, shift position, itch. The body sometimes sends out tiny red flags of urgency. Move now! Scratch me now! Here, our job is to not move. Not to fidget.

Of all the perils of meditation, perhaps the most treacherous is the foot-falling-asleep. When you sit for 45 minutes in cross-legged position, the foot can become a numb lump, something that feels heavily attached to the body, but not of the body. Pins and needles. A dull sort of tingling. It can overtake you so that you feel that you will not survive your foot falling asleep.

This is where you learn to conquer your mind, where you learn that sitting with discomfort actually will not kill you. We can endure discomfort. We can endure unpleasant emotions. We can face all of this with equanimity. (Who knew?) After all, it's temporary.

And we are not the emotions that surge and swell through our body, but something deeper, the container that holds them, the peace at the core. We are not even this body! It too is a vessel for the spirit that we are. That is what the great sages tell us, and it is what I believe, and it is what this practice ultimately teaches us.

Soon enough, Dina rings the bell to end the meditation session. The foot, with some shaking to restore blood flow, slowly wakes up again. And the rewards of sitting still and training the "monkey mind" to be still are so great.

For me, it is the way I return again and again to the center of peace inside me (we all have it!). It is how I train and remind myself to listen to my intuition, to feel what my body is telling me to do when making key decisions in my life, vs. just analyzing everything, turning possible solutions over and over anxiously, with my overworking, thinking mind.

In this place of spaciousness, in stillness, real love and beauty can arise. On this retreat, during our last meditation sit, just before Dina rings the bell to end our second of two 15-minute sits, this vow rises up inside me: "LIVE WITH MY HEART WIDE OPEN." It is what I take as my instructions from myself to live out in the world once I leave Laurel Springs Ranch and return to everyday life.

At the end of the meditation, I also visualize flowers blooming inside of me. It brings to mind the beautiful poem by Galway Kinnell that Dina often reads on her retreats which features the line: "Everything flowers from within of self-blessing."

I flower from within of self-blessing. I bow to honor the divine in me, and in all of us. Namaste. Shalom. Peace.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Pura Vida - back to the simple life in Costa Rica...

"Should we pick the bananas on the way home?" I ask. It is dark. We are walking the trails to the right of the catarata (waterfall) in the middle of the Monteverde Cloud Preserve in Costa Rica. We walk single file, my sister Carrie in front, her husband Pablo behind me.

Carrie and I wear the kind of headlamps that miners wear, illuminating 15 feet ahead of us on our path. We navigate carefully, slipping sometimes on large tropical leaves or patches of mud, picking our way over stone paths, holding on trees and sometimes each other.

All around us, night sounds: birds, crickets chirping, the sound of rushing water. Occasionally Pablo howls or whistles behind me in response to an animal call. "A little further to go," says Carrie, as we walk up and down muddy steps, across rocks, over more slippery yellow leaves. The canopy of trees overhead obscures the moon.

When darnkness fell, we had been sitting at the mouth of the waterfall, by the pool at the foot of a 100 foot cascade, but when the packs of bats came swooping down overhead, we scrambled back to the path and headed home.

We feel our way, the light spilling ahead of us on our path, up and down and around, across log bridges, rocky stairways and paths, forks in the road. I couldn't figure out how Carrie and Pablo knew the way home so well, but it is a path they had walked many times before. To me, it stretched on and on in the dark... until we finally reach a meadow that looks familiar to me.

We walk through it and then through the banana trees. At the end of the corridor of banana trees, Carrie picks six green bananas to fry for our dinner, passing up the plantains this time. Overhead the clouds slide across the star-pricked sky to reveal the moon.

Bananas in hand, we walk back toward the cabin, ducking underneath the barbed wire fence. "Home sweet home," Carrie says as we approach the small wooden cabin, painted aquamarine on the outside, with two travel hammocks swinging on the porch overlooking the mountain and valley views beyond.

In the mornings here, there are hummingbirds, butterflies, sometimes even a pack of white-faced monkeys flying through the trees next to the cabin. Sometimes they hang around outside long enough for us to catch a quick out-of-focus picture, but if you get too close, they vanish into the treetops. You hear the wish-wish-wish sound of leaves rustling at the tops of the trees, and suddenly the fast moving climbers are out of sight, gone.

The variety of the animal species residing here is amazing - from the resplendent quetzal to the basilisk or "Jesus lizard" that walks on water to the shimny honeycreeper (blue bird) to the famous large blue morpho butterflies, an otherworldly royal blue on one side and camouflage brown with a big fake eye on the underside (they are my favorites).

Inside the cabin there are hundreds of varieties of bugs it seems, crawling and flying around - the cabin is charming, rustic, but not airtight or bugproof. When I first arrive, my sister warns me about the scorpions. "Don't worry," she says. "They're not the lethal kind."

Once or twice a day, she takes a bucket and a kitchen spoon and scoops a scorpion off the wall or floor and carries the bucket outside to deposit it on the grass or near the compost heap.

I never thought I'd be so casual about scorpions, but somehow I don't give the bugs here a second thought, content to settle into a simplified life for a while. We spend a week together in this cabin, where there is no hot running water, and no refrigerator.

Preparing meals takes a while, and it's something Carrie and I do together to pass the time while we visit. Carrie and Pablo have greens and veggies delivered to the house twice a week, and we cook up root vegetables and rice, or curried lentils, or black beans with onion and hot sauce. The cooking supplies are limited of course since we can't have perishable items - dairy or meats - only veggies, beans, grains, dry goods.

Somehow this environment brings out the creative cook in me and I find myself making extravagantly delicious dishes with simple ingredients: spicy curried lentils with lemon rice and fried candied sweet potato slices. Pasta with fresh basil and tomatoes and garlic, salted just enough.

Somehow when we cook in the rainforest with simple ingredients on a two burner stove, and you're very hungry, the food is twice is delicious. Simple. Good. Pura vida.

This is the slogan for Costa Rica, the tourist-friendly motto - Pura vida - and it fits here. We wake up when we wake up, cook breakfast (oatmeal, or granola with powdered soy milk, or fresh fruit) then walk to the river to swim, bathe, lie on the rocks basking in the sunshine like the lizards that slither by.

We take longer walks sometimes to the EcoLodge in the center of San Luis, where we can check the Internet, interact with other visitors and the naturalists who travel here from around the world to work at the lodge, giving tours of the wildlife.

We walk up to the waterfall. We visit and talk for hours, and nap when we feel like it, and take sponge baths with hot water heated on the stove in the middle of the day sometimes. We read in the hammock. It's a leisurely, beautiful, simple life.

After a week in the cabin, we head to town to try out some of the organized rainforest activities: flying along the zipline 400+ feet up in the air, walking on suspension bridges over the canopy. I take a ride on 11 ziplines, including one on which you are zipping along at up to 40 miles per hour over the trees. It's exhilirating and not the least bit scary, as long as you don't let yourself think about the risk factor. (As with flying, which I do often, I choose to embrace as a miracle the fact that I'm shooting through the air at 600+ miles per hour in a metal tube, and landing safely, versus thinking about what could go wrong). I don't think about the risk involved, and therefore I have a blast.

By the end, Pablo and I are muddy and happy, splashed with mud and water from the trees when the rain kicked in after the first two ziplines. I recommend that everyone try flying over the rainforest, hooked into a harness, in the sun and rain.... Nothing quite like that sensation.

We then headed to Rincon de la Vieja, one of the volcanoes on the mainland, where we stayed in a picturesque cabin, surrounded by colorful gardens, the cabin walls spilling over with a luscious fuschia tumble of bougainvillea. We swam in the waterfall and soaked in hot sulfur springs.

I nearly passed out when we soaked and sniffed too close to the source of the sulfur fumes, hallucinating for a minute - strange people were talking to me in my head until I snapped out of it and entered the real world again after about 30 lost seconds. Be quite sure you're not allergic to sulfur (apparently, I am!) before trying this trick at home.

Then, we were off to spend the remainder of the last week in the cozy little Pacific beach town of Playa Samara. We stayed in a cabin right along the beach, right next door to the surfer school where cute young Tico (short for "Costa Rican") Rasta-styled, dreadlocked, surfer boys lounged and chatted all day long, occasionally interrupting their endless conversations to teach a lesson.

We drank strawberry margharitas at bars along the beach, including my favorite place, Shake Joe's, which featured comfy bed-style couches and hammocks to lounge in with friends while eyeing the other customers in the hazy evening light and sipping drinks with tropical fruit and little paper umbrellas.

I soaked in the sun, slathered head to toe in SPF 30 or higher of course, and swam in the warm Pacific aqua blue and clear Pacific waters. I got blonder by the day, my red hair picking up golden highlights in the sunshine.

We woke up when the sun or breeze or our internal clock woke us, fell asleep to the sound of the surf crashing at night, lounged about on the beach or in the hammock during the day, ate sumpuously full plates of tropical fruits every morning, and sometimes sipped fresh coconut milk. If this is not relaxing - what is???

When caught in the whirlwind of our normal busy, buzzing lives, few things are healthier I think than slowing down, taking a break, getting back to basics. The simple and pure life in Costa Rica was the perfect way to recharge my batteries.

Perhaps you are not as fortunate as I am to have a sister living in Costa Rica, as Carrie was for a while, and granted, that helped make this a possibility for me. But if not in Costa Rica, build some pura vida into your own life wherever you are, by taking some time just to slow down, relax, unplug the computer, turn off the Treo, to just enjoy some peace and quiet, to just enjoy the company of the people around you.

Luckily, as I have learned again and again, the world keeps spinning if I step out of my work routine for a while. My work is still waiting for me when I return home. But I am calmer, happier, more peaceful, more sane.

And that is a blessing, for me and everyone around me. So, with apologies to Paris and Nicole, whose show I will never watch, here's to living the simple life...

Friday, February 09, 2007

One love

It doesn't interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

~Oriah Mountain Dreamer

It's Valentine's Day, and I'm single, and I'm a veteran of one marriage that, like most marriages, had some good in it, some sweetness and some happiness. Yet it didn't work, it fell apart, it ended. Ah, love...

The past year, when my ex- and I filed for divorce, was filled with a lot of grief and guilt, and a lot of blessings too, like my travels, the sale of my house, my friends around the world, my work. I have spent a lot of time exploring what went wrong in my marriage, and exploring concepts of love. What does it mean to me? What do I want from love? Or, the flip-side - how much love do I have to give?

A lot, a lot. Love, in its deepest form, is boundless. There is room enough in my heart for all six billion people on earth - although, of course, I can't marry all six billion, or even speed-date all six billion (or even the three billion with the y-chromosome). Now, putting this capacity for boundless love into practice is another question.

I do believe we all have an endless and divine capacity to love yet it's generally easier, and very normal and human, to constrict ourselves, to withhold the love we give, as if there wasn't enough to go around, as if we'd run out. When by giving it, it only grows...

This is hardly an original thought of course; ask the Dalai Lama, Buddha, Jesus, any old guru or prophet you meet on the street, and they will agree. It's just that this is the time in my life when I am more ready to finally live it, to at least try to put this into practice in my life...

For me, love has expanded this year well beyond the concept of romance, where it was stuck on pause and rewind for a while. Don't get me wrong: I, like most of us, still want the soul-mate, passionate lover, best friend, all rolled into one.

I want a partner on the spiritual path with whom to share the joys and lessons, with whom I can contribute to the world, make a difference and give back, and also (ahem) with whom I can enjoy a good roll in the sack. Maybe some of you have that today already and if you do, God bless! Celebrate it!

I'm still searching, but I live a life filled with love in so many ways. I'm reminded every Sunday of what it means to really put unconditional love into action when I walk into Glide Memorial Methodist Church, where the sign above the door as you enter from the meal hall reads, "To be spiritual is to love everybody."

Glide puts that into action... Everyone is welcomed at Glide, no matter your ethnicity, religion, sexual preference. As they say, transgendered, transexual, even trans-bay are all welcome (okay, non-Bay Area residents, this last one is an SF insiders' joke!).

At Glide, they serve more than one million meals a year to those in need, run recovery programs, clinics and shelters. You may have seen the movie "The Pursuit of Happyness" featuring Will Smith that tells the true story of Chris Gardner, who went from being a homeless single father on the streets of SF to a millionaire Wall Street broker. He credits Glide for getting him back on his feet again.

Glide has a million more stories of redemption and grace, and I show up every Sunday to hear the stories, to be blessed by the spirit of joy in the church, to learn again and feel in my bones how very blessed I am to be healthy, alive, happy, to have a home and good food to eat and so many friends. I have so much more than so many on this planet... We are all so abundantly blessed, and it's easy to forget that sometimes.

Yet having a home and food and money and other external blessings don't guarantee a happy heart. "Loneliness and the experience of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty," said Mother Teresa, who knew something about poverty. Rev. Fitch shared this quote with us, and I watched one member of the choir weep, her eyes rimmed red, as the woman next to her wrapped her in her arms.

He challenged us all to reach out to someone who was lonely, someone who was hurting, to stop judging, to stop thinking only of ourselves, to help someone heal. There is no greater gift than unconditional love. As Reverend Fitch said, "When we judge people, we have no time to love them."

I do an exercise sometimes, inspired by a book by Wayne Dyer, while walking down the street. I try to simply send unconditional love to everyone who passes me. I was honestly surprised to find, when I focused my attention on it, that I pass so many quick judgments about people, that I can within seconds see someone and size them up, pass a judgment about whether or not this is someone I would want to talk to...

Judging by appearances is so easy to do, and we're so trained to do it by society, marketing campaigns, flashy billboards and glitzy advertisements. I think a lot of us at one point or another have had an idea in our head of what our mate is supposed to look like, or maybe we've fallen into step with certain friends because they look or dress like us (what teenager hasn't done that at some point, wanting to belong?) but it's so often a false construct. People so often surprise us.

Yet it's still a challenge, I find, to send love to everyone I see - but it's a challenge I want to continue to take on. Who doesn't benefit from some simple kindness, loving thoughts, a little attention? We all want to be noticed, appreciated.

That is not to say that we have to like everyone, or should even try - we all have different sensibilities, we all have different tastes. And there just isn't enough time to be friends with the whole planet, or to have all the inhabitants of your continent over for dinner. But to love everyone? In spirit, and in practice, when you are face to face with a stranger? In my mind at least that's a noble goal.

Luckily, I do like all of you who are reading this - my friends. Blessings to you. I honestly don't know what I'd do without having so many incredible friends around the world, who inspire me, make me laugh, boost me up when I'm feeling down and help me to know that I'm not crazy for feeling whatever I'm feeling, whatever wave I'm riding at the moment... Who are there to make my life really worth living.

My daily meditation practice also helps me to love myself and my life more deeply by reconnecting me with my breath, my body, and by helping me to clear some of the cobwebs out of my mind. I find myself a little bit less caught in stories and drama, every day, a little more able to live in the present moment fully, and to choose my response to the moment...

Which helps of course when it comes to men. As for the other part of the love relationship equation, what all my other relationships in my life can't give me, i.e. sex, physical love, well, this is a PG-13 blog read by many of my family members so we won't delve into that too deeply.

I'll let the funny, wonderful and wise author Elizabeth Gilbert speak for me on this one - I, too, want to devote myself to God, but also want worldly pleasures... Here is what she has to say on that topic, as she discusses it with the medicine man Ketut in Indonesia:

"I want to have a lasting experience of God," I told him. "Sometimes I feel like I understand the divinity of this world, but then I lose it because I get distracted by my petty desires and fears. I want to be with God all the time. But I don't want to be a monk, or totally give up worldly pleasures. I guess what I want to learn is how to live in this world and enjoy its delights, but also devote myself to God."

Ketut said he could answer my question with a picture. He showed me a sketch he'd drawn once during meditation. It was an androgynous human figure, standing up, hands clasped in prayer. But this figure had four legs, and no head. Where the head should have been, there was only a wild foliage of ferns and flowers. There was a small, smiling face drawn over the heart.

"To find the balance you want," Ketut spoke through his translator, "this is what you must become. You must keep your feet grounded so firmly on the earth that it's like you have four legs, instead of two. That way, you can stay in the world. But you must stop looking at the world through your head. You must look through your heart, instead. That way, you will know God."

"You must stop looking at the world through your head." Ah, yes. Easily said, not always so easily done - but that is what my journey is now, to follow a path with heart. When I'm living in the present moment, not obsessing about my past or fantasizing about the future, when I'm being led by love in my life, when I'm following my intuition and heart (and showing up, and doing the work this life calls for too) there is no "wrong" or "right," or rather, I'm always in the right place. The challenges and what seem to be failures in any given moment become lessons.

When I look at love and dating that way, I'm more willing to take risks, put myself out there, knowing that all experiences of human connection are worthwhile, and that if I am true to myself, my path will lead me where I need to go.

I'll end with this beautiful quote from Pujya Swamiji: "Love has no conditions. When we put conditions, when we put barriers and boundaries, then we lose love. Love is condition-less. Love is barrier-less. Look at the moon, sun, stars, trees... they are just on for everyone. When our love also flows for everyone, you become very natural."

Here's to being like the sun, moon, stars, which are "on for everyone." May I be a light in this world, as the Buddha urged his followers on his deathbed. May I not be afraid to shine. Because you never know when your light will illuminate the path for someone else, as so many other shining lights have illuminated mine.

Blessings to you all, to my friends around the world, for being lights in my life.

Now, go give someone a big smooch or hug. Go spread some love! Happy Valentine's Day.

"Ever since Love heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you...."
- Hafiz

Lisa Powell Graham © 2007