Wednesday, September 26, 2012


I was standing on the corner outside Peel's on the lower east side waiting for my daughter Andrus.  We were meeting for brunch-  and it was a beautiful day, so I put us on the wait list for one of the outside tables, and went to wait in the sun.  Lots of people heading out for a meal, running weekend errands, or walking dogs.  Saturday morning, autumn, New York City. Warm sun, cool air- about perfect.

I was leaning against a bus stop shelter, watching the scene, when a cute young couple walked up with 3 Whole Foods paper bags of their household trash, and deposited them in a trash can about a yard from me.  They had a brief cuddle and kiss and parted company and never even noticed me standing all of 2 feet from them.  I used to live in NYC, long ago, when Soho was still mostly industrial buildings and galleries.  You can develop a cloak of invisibility when you live in a big city...unless you are one of those characters who commands attention just waiting for a cab. I'm more of the voyeur type- so invisibility suits me.

As the couple separated and walked away, a second young couple- who had been approaching took center stage.  They were street people, and everything they wore looked like it had been run over by city buses for a month. A year.  Black, grey, brown grimy clothes, and the girl had shoes that were actually just soles, with scraps of leftover shoe across her feet, leather flapping this way and that.  He had black dreadlocks to mid- back, and a heavy backpack, as did she. Blond, with a pierced nose, and a watch cap, she looked anxious, tired, and hopeful that those Whole Food bags might contain something she could eat.  The man was on a rant, swearing about the city, and who knows what, while she searched the bags.

He stood right in front of me as he yelled and swore, maybe 2-3 feet away.  His backpack was open at the top, and nestled into the top of it was a cage with rats in it. 2 grey-black rats, nosing the air, and moving about. Then he was gone, heading up the sidewalk, and I watched her as she kept her eye on how far ahead he was, while she continued to look through the bags.  Finally she gave up, and set off after him.

We never made eye contact. She never saw me, or realized I was watching her from a yard away. But I saw her. As a mother, I wondered where her family was, if she had siblings, a grandmother, an aunt- does anyone worry about her? Do they know she is alive- if this is alive?
For a brief moment I thought I should have given her some money, then realized it would have probably caused tension between her and her mate.  If she'd kept it for herself it becomes her burden, a secret.  If she tells him about it he might take it.  This is her life, not mine.  Her path.

She has haunted me for days, with those tired, anxious eyes, wary and watchful.  Her hunger gnaws at me. Her fatigue wears me out.  And there is nothing to do but place her in my prayers at night when I do my practice.  I can send her peace, and love.  I was her witness, for a few brief moments, on a beautiful morning in New York, and I will be her advocate to the gods.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Wandering Toast at Camp Swamiland

Some of you might remember why I call myself the Wandering Toast…it’s a tongue in cheek reference to Taoism.  I was at 4 day silent retreat at a friend’s house with her Buddhist meditation group and their teacher. Doing a slow walking meditation past a wall of library books I caught the title out of the corner of my eye- The Wandering Toast.  The host was a world class cook, traveler, psychotherapist, gardener extraordinaire, Episcopal minister, and Buddhist.  Her book collection includes books on all those subjects and more, neatly organized.  Then the book was behind me.  Curiosity! Could it be a cookbook on food to take on the road? Jonnycakes, unleavened bread, things that don’t need refrigeration and such?  Things to do with stale bread?  I walked around alternately beating myself up for not being a good meditator, wondering about the title, and trying to follow my breath and walk.  Finally, after zipping by it at a fast walk,  I got to slow walk by it.  The Wandering TAOIST.  Not Toast.  Giggles.  Not good.  I’m clearly not meant for monastic life. There’s a previous post about what happened next if you want to read it.

I’ve spent the last month at yoga teacher training at the Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I decided over a year ago to apply for this program. I’m still trying to remember why, but it doesn’t matter anymore.  After the first week that question was plaguing all 62 of us, as we visited the sauna and whirlpools, got massages, and wept. 4-6 hours of yoga a day, anatomy and physiology, philosophy, teaching strategies, asana posture clinics, voice workshops, scary practice teaches, and the looming final exam. Up at 5:45 and crash into bed later than I should.  Initially I was terrified knowing that I’d be in a minority of older participants, surrounded by 18-40 years olds with uninjured, muscular bodies leaping into and sustaining difficult positions for as long as it might take me to drive to the Red Lion Inn and get a glass of wine and sneak back- whereupon they’d leap, undaunted, out of the asana and grin, begging for the next assignment.  I’d be in Swami boot camp. 

Not so. Because I have had injuries, done yoga on and off for 40 years, and learned to have some compassion for myself I was able to pace myself, modify poses as appropriate, and like the tortoise, I plodded along while the young’un dropped like flies the first 10 days.  Then each one “got it” and they started to take care of themselves, and the philosophy part that overwhelmed many of them in the beginning started to sink in.  One total cutie pie said early on “What do you mean this is going to ‘transform’ us??? I like myself just the way I am!  I don’t want to change!”  She is transformed- becoming more deeply herself every day. And joyful about it.

So I survived!  And what is the Wandering Toast taking home from camp? No potholders, or picture frames made of popsicle sticks.  No badges for excellence in canoeing. I’m taking my breath home. Breath creates an expansion, making space for movement, and change.  With that space and movement, prana (energy) can flow more easily.  Not just in the body, either.  It’s that breath I take before responding to a question- when I have the opportunity to disengage from my knee-jerk reaction and respond with thoughtfulness, and kindness.  In my final hour-long practice teach I invited people to begin every deliberate movement with an inhale and move with the exhale, and stay a few breaths.  The exhales became a gentle surrender – an invitation to go deeper into the posture, and into what was true for them, in that moment.  I’m trying to breathe into the whole day now, and see what spaces open up, what new movements are possible in my life.

So I am back in the Adirondacks, dog delightfully underfoot, and the planet is breathing thru the cottage- windows flung wide open, curtains flapping. The wind chime moves with the breeze, and the greens and blues of the summer day are stunning.  It’s a day to breathe and feel and allow- and I’m going to do all three.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

And the river runs thru it.

Every so often the water company opens the dam and lets water flow into the Santa Fe River for a while. The river bed is usually dry, just sand and rocks. Today- Earth Day- a spectacular spring day- the river had 6" of water, children in rain boots, dogs, adults with jeans rolled up, and even normally surly teenagers sat on the banks smiling at the action. Lilacs are in full bloom, along with many of the trees in town, tulips, wisteria, forsythia, various shrubs, and succulents.
You haven't heard form me in a while. It's been a busy year. Brief synopsis- the house in Rhinebeck sold 30 days after my friend Judith Feng Shuie-ed it after it had been on the market for over a year. The right family bought it, too. Children, a dog, the works. The house I had fallen in love with in Santa Fe had been bought by someone last winter- but no! The deal had fallen thru- and so here I am sitting on the porch, dog sprawled at my feet (still wet from the river,) looking at the garden and writing to you.
It was a good move, coming here. There are 2 places I feel at home; the southwest and the Adirondacks of NY. 2 hard, scrappy, difficult places. Both also essentially beautiful. While New Mexico has little water, The Adirondacks often get more than their share- as witnessed by Hurricane Irene last summer, which followed bad spring flooding when the snow melted. My little valley up there was one of the hardest hit places by Irene. Fema and all. Here in Santa Fe you'd be shot if you used a sprinkler on a lawn.....and no one has lawns. You have stones, or dirt, or cement, and rain barrels under your down spouts from the roof to water what plants you do have. Santa Fe is 2 miles up- so we have snow and skiing in winter, but in town by early afternoon most of it's gone. The Adirondacks are often 20-30 below, with mountains of snow and ice. You pay serious attention to weather in both places.
I read this book called The Wind in a Jar, by an anthropologist named Farella. It's a slim volume about the problems of trying to capture a culture- how impossible it is to say "The Navajo believe X" when in fact some don't. In any case, he describes a fellow anthropologist's interview with an old Hopi man, and their discussion of the Hopi creation story. According to the story, the Hopi lived in the rough, difficult high mesas of the desert for a long time, and then migrated north- perhaps into what is now Colorado- where there was water, lots of game, and good soil for crops. Eventually the Hopi returned to their original home in the mesas and high desert. The anthropologist asked the old man why his people had returned to this hard, difficult place when they had been in greener, less arid climes, where hunting was good, and water plentiful?  The old Hopi told him that "In those easy places our religion, our way of life, would not survive."  Farella goes on to say "Their religion, their way of life requires close attention to things.  They need to watch closely that world around them, look for order in it that allows them to life there.  ....  Their ceremonies make note of that pattern.  They mark the moments in it that matter.  They punctuate time and are a celebration of it." He goes on to talk about how we perhaps have misinterpreted the importance of their ceremonies.  It isn't that the rain won't come if the ceremony is late, or not done properly.  The wrong is in forgetting the tempo of their world.  The wrong comes from not having paid attention to- or not knowing what matters.

This struck me like quiet lightening.
I need to be where people naturally pay attention, where the organic rhythms of our planet are considered, and contemplated, noted and acted upon. In difficult environments you have to pay attention- to the birds, the bugs, the clouds, the rain, the seasons. I'm hardly a "nature girl"in the sense of running barefoot up mountains, camping on rocky ground, eating freeze dried food and feeling neutral about being eaten by bugs while I try to sleep on those rocks. But I do need to feel connected to the balance of the natural world. I get queasy when I am not aware of what the sky is doing. I get cranky when I'm in shoes all the time and haven't felt the earth with my soles for too long. Santa Fe and my Adirondack home town both require that attention to the natural world.  People are in partnership with it. Periodically it beats us up- yup- and we bow before it, humbled and wide awake.
Wide awake. That's the part the buddhist in me responds to. I don't want to control nature- neither do the native tribes. I just want to notice what is happening, and I don't want to inflict harm. I don't really like the idea of water only coming down the river bed when men open the dam a bit-to celebrate Earth Day... but damn it was beautiful down there. It was a celebration of water, the lifeblood of the planet. The new plantings have taken and are leafing out, the children and dogs were running and gleeful, the bright green of the new tree leaves against that deep blue sky practically hurt my eyes. The rolled up cuffs of my jeans are still cool and damp and I bet there is sand in them when I unroll them.  Bliss.