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.

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