Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Sacred Amidst the Profane

I like how some people stand up in the food court King George II style, and some people just keep eating their curly fries.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What Am I Willing to Give Up?

There’s a well known story in the gospels about a rich young man who approaches Jesus and asks him how to get his hands on the golden ticket—that is, eternal life. Jesus tells him to stick to the 10 commandments, and the young man claims that he has those under control. So Jesus looks him up and down, and with razor sharp insight He goes for the jugular. “Sell everything you’ve got, and give it to the poor.” The words hang in the air between Jesus and the rich young man while the young man takes in the shocking instruction. He puts his hand in his pocket to feel the soft leather of his wallet. Deeply chagrined, he drops eye contact with Jesus and he slowly back-pedals home towards his lake-side Galilean condo with his Mercedes Benz chariot parked in the garage. For he was very rich.

And Jesus turned to his disciples and said “It’s difficult for people who are stinking rich to turn their lives over to a Higher Purpose. It’s like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle.” At which point the disciples either slapped their knees and laughed at Jesus’ hilarious joke, or they swallowed fearfully, wondering what THEY were going to have to give up someday.

I don’t think Jesus is inherently against people having money. In this particular case, Jesus just knew that the young man’s wealth was what was keeping him from really being able to serve God and man with whole-hearted, undistracted dedication.

Right now, tens of thousands of thirsty Haitians are scooping up cloudy water in tin cups, knowing that they will die if they don’t drink water, and they will die if they drink cholera-contaminated water. Those are the choices. Right now angry Haitians are wandering around the littered city streets, waving machetes and trying to find someone to blame for the cholera epidemic, the U.N occupation, the earthquake, the shambles of the upcoming presidential elections, the whole history of Haiti, and God only knows what else.

This past week— the week I was supposed to be in Haiti -- I’ve been sitting on my comfortable couch, drinking clean water out of the tap, flushing my toilet and not even thinking about where that waste is going, walking on an uncontaminated beach, enjoying rain storms without fear of flash floods, and going to work where I earn considerably more than one dollar a day.

And I don’t have answers, but I keep discovering new, soul-searching, mind-blowing questions. The question for this week is: what am I willing to give up to authentically serve God and others? Material things, like my bank account? Some clothes? My job? Chocolate? My meticulously accumulated retirement funds? Good tasting food? Or how about immaterial things, like comfort? Health? Security? Respect? Traveling? Dreams for my future? My indignant sense of right and wrong? Time with friends? Convenience? My precious down time? Seeing my family on holidays? Cleanliness?

I begin to worry that people are tired of reading and hearing my rants full of these questions. But on the other hand, I think these are questions that all world citizens need to ask themselves if we are ever going to make a dent in rectifying the inequities that exist from country to country, and in many cases, from neighborhood to neighborhood. If there is ever any hope of balancing the scales, everyone has to be willing to ask “what am I willing to give up?” And the answers to that question that will truly make a difference in this world will certainly be harder to carry out than squeezing a camel through the eye of a needle.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Unpacking My Suitcase and My Disappointment

I would have been arriving in Haiti right now. But the night before I was prepared to leave, Beyond Borders, the organization who was hosting me and four others, made the judgment call to cancel the trip because the cholera outbreak in Haiti had worsened and they didn’t think they could adequately protect us from cholera.

Cholera has infected 12,000 and killed 800 in Haiti so far. Worse yet, it recently made its way into the capital—Port au Prince—where millions of people live in post-earthquake make-shift tents, and are in great danger of being exposed to contaminated water. I knew cholera was a threat, and in general I do try to avoid situations where projectile vomiting and diarrhea are likely. My brain thinks Beyond Borders made the right decision.

But my heart feels so damn sad.
And confused.
And disappointed.

On Friday I spent most of the day carefully packing my suitcase, and on Saturday I unpacked it while trying to sort out my feelings.

I feel sad because in 2010 alone the Haitians have suffered an earthquake that killed 200,000 people, last week Hurricane Tomas wreaked havoc on parts of Haiti, and now there is a deadly cholera epidemic.

I feel disappointed because I’ve been gearing up physically, emotionally, and spiritually for this trip for months, and the rug quite suddenly got pulled out from under me.

I feel confused because the reason I want to travel to Haiti is out of obedience to a calling I feel upon me to go. So why can’t I get to Haiti? Is the whole point the willingness to go, and not the actual going?

I’ve no tidy answers for the end of this post-- just questions. But one thing I know is that the next 8 days that I would have been in Haiti are going to be particularly devoted to praying for and focusing on the Haitian people, reading and getting more educated, and listening for other ideas of what I can do to help them.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

I love the poem where Emily Dickenson defines hope using a bird as a metaphor:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all.

Where is the Hope?

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Haiti I’ve been reading articles and history books about Haiti, and in the past few days I’ve developed a low-grade funk. Haiti’s history is chock-full of horrifying atrocities.

Ever since Christopher Columbus discovered Haiti in 1492— and subsequently wiped out 400,000 natives—the Haitians have been fighting for their lives. The Spanish wreaked havoc upon Haiti for 200 years by forcing the natives to labor for them, and then they paid them with the gift of small pox. Then the French got in line to take a stab at ruling Haiti and they brought in hundreds of thousands of African slaves to work their coffee, cocoa, and cotton crops so the French could get rich. There were revolutions and rebellions over the next few hundred years, in which various men asserted their power and authority, only to be assassinated by their enemies.

Cue the sound of a military bugle blowing. The U.S. Marines marched into Haiti to occupy the country and show the Haitians how it is done. Which is to say—the U.S. showed (and is still showing) the Haitians how rich people from other countries can wag the tail of the American military so that they receive lucrative contracts in said countries and become stinking rich in the process. Then another series of politicians and military officers played “king of the hill” for the right to rule Haiti. Papa Doc Duvalier stepped in as a dictator dishing out torture, extortion, and violent rule for the next few decades, until he died and passed the dictator baton to his son Baby Doc. Baby Doc eventually got kicked out but he took enough of Haiti’s money with him to go live comfortably in exile in France, while another series of wanna be politicians orchestrated various governmental reconstructions, military coups, and murders, vying for control of Haiti.

This brings us to today. We all know that in addition to governmental instability and extreme poverty, in January 2010, Haiti suffered a 7.0 earthquake that killed 230,000 and left over 1.6 million people homeless. In the last few weeks, an outbreak of cholera has killed hundreds of people, and yesterday Hurricane Tomas blew through Western Haiti, leaving the people to sweep mud out of their NGO-issued tarp tent homes.

Isn’t this blog post a bummer? Well, that is my point. Where is the hope?

I delivered a sermon on hope once, defining hope as “a desire of something good, with at least a reasonable expectation that it is obtainable.” From the perspective of my readings, ever since 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Haiti has only been dealt lousy cards. With a 500 year history like that, how can there be a reasonable expectation that good stuff is obtainable?

Where is the hope?

I don’t have the answer to that question, but you can bet your bottom dollar that when I am in Haiti I will look high and wide for the answer.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Upping the Ante

Apparently it’s not enough that Haiti has…

Distinction as the poorest country in the Americas
Constant political unrest
An upcoming presidential election
Extensive recovery efforts from the January 2010 earthquake

But now— right at the exact time when I am traveling to this country— Haiti is dealing with:

A cholera outbreak that has infected 5,000 people and killed 400 people.
Hurricane Tomas threatening to blow winds of 85 mph upon the weakened geography of Haiti.

Seems the ante has been raised on my interest in poverty issues, and on my commitment to obediently pursue a calling to check out Haiti.

up the ante Informal to increase the costs, risks, or considerations involved in taking an action or reaching a conclusion

Thank goodness I’m a gambling woman. You gotta bet big to win big.

Fears that Creep Into the Night

I’m anticipating that my trip to Haiti will be intense. And so far, in the daytime at least, I haven’t been tripping out about the inherent dangers, discomforts, and unknowns. But last night was the first time that I spent some sleepless hours dealing with fears that creep into the night.

I’m afraid.

I’m afraid that I will have the same extreme aversion to Haiti as I do to India.
I’m afraid that for some reason I won’t connect with Haitians.
I’m afraid that I will be stuck in a hotel room in Miami for several days while a hurricane passes through Haiti.
I’m afraid of getting a bad stomach bug- I once spent a long night passed out in a bathroom in Katmandu, so I know it is a big bummer.
I’m afraid of people’s first impression of me as being tired and cranky since I will be flying all night to Miami, and arriving in Haiti very early in the morning.
I’m afraid of extreme toilet situations that I haven’t experienced yet.
I’m afraid of accidently doing something offensive to the Haitians.
I’m afraid of my heart aching from compassion and empathy and love.

In the midst of all this nighttime fear, I’m reminded of a few verses written by St. John, good friend of Jesus.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them... There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…

I believe that in this last week of preparation for my Nov 13th take-off, my best bet is to focus on love.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pull Out the Crayons

Last night I started a 4-week learning lab on creativity with ReIMAGINE. Creativity is one of the 7 vows that we take together to live out the teachings of Jesus. We believe that living artfully helps us to live out God's unfolding story in our cultural time and place, and that when we exercise creativity we are reflecting the Creator.

The particular team who put the creativity learning lab together decided to roll with creativity as "child-like wonder, creativity, and faith". So we are doing kid things. For example, during our lab time last night dozens of grown-ups could be found sprawled out on the sidewalks and in Dolores Park doing "rubbings" where you place your paper over objects of different textures, then "rub" the crayon over it so you get that shape on your paper.

We are all keeping a daily journal for the duration of the learning lab-- but not an ordinary grown up journal. It is a "doodle pad" (mine has a happy turtle on the cover) and we have agreed to use only crayons in our journaling. I happened to have a mega-box of crayons in my closet, so I enthusiastically got them out and dove right into crayon journaling this morning.

Crayons don't flow like a nice Bic rollerball pen does. Crayons are chunky and imprecise and wrapped in paper that you have to keep peeling off. But on the other hand, they smell like childhood, and I have 64 colors to choose from with names like "spring green" and "mulberry". Bics come in red, black, and blue. Period.

Jesus said "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Will journaling with crayons help me live my life more like Jesus? That remains to be seen. But in the meantime, I did catch myself sticking my tongue out in child-like concentration a couple of times.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Ass of Grace

My friends Ed and vicki!—in moment so silly I can’t even tell you how it came about—challenged me to write a blog post called “The Ass of Grace.” “The phrase doesn’t even make sense” I protested, but in an optimistic act of bravado they upped the ante by promising to donate $100 each to my travel fund if I end up going to Haiti. So here goes….

The Ass of Grace
My friends use the word “ass” a lot. There are the common phrases having to do with ass, such as:
Nice ass
Move your ass
Kick ass
Haul ass

But my friends have come up with some hybrid ass-phrasing that is a regular part of our conversations and I’ve come to realize that many of them are strongly related to the concept of grace.

If we define “grace” as receiving favor that you don’t deserve or haven’t earned, then many of the ass phrases embraced by my friends have grace-full meanings.

We’ll start with an easy one. If someone looks at another person and says “what an ass!” (but not in the good way like they have junk in their trunk and look good in their jeans) and this person is shaking their head and casting a disapproving look, they mean the person has misbehaved in some way. Who needs grace—free favor—more than someone who is misbehaving?

When someone “falls on her ass” it is quite literally and figuratively a grace issue. If she literally fell on her ass—say whilst skating at a roller rink listening to "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees—then this illustrates lack of grace in the sense of ease of movement. But if someone “falls on her ass” in the figurative sense, it is rather about failure or being unsuccessful, as in “she blew that presentation and fell on her ass”. Who needs grace—free favor—more than someone who has failed miserably at something?

My friend vicki! uses the term “show your ass” quite often, as in “he went ballistic when we broke up, and really showed his ass”. When you “show your ass” you are unveiling the undesirable things about yourself; there are no pretences, no hiding, just the reality of who and what you are. Who needs grace—free favor—more than someone who has hung their worst bits out there for everyone to freely see and judge?

When referring to someone’s “sorry ass” it means that something pathetic has inadvertently been revealed about you, and someone is calling out your “sorry ass” with a tinge of disdain in their voice, as in “take a shower and get your sorry ass over here”. Who needs grace—free favor—more than someone who is acting pathetic?

Last but not least, my friends frequently use the term “foot up your ass” which means to strongly motivate someone. For example, when my friends vicki! and Ed set up a date to meet with me to follow-up on my desire to travel to Haiti, they threatened me that “these two Filipinos will have our feet so far up your ass that you will burp adobo!” This is how my friends talk. I don’t make this stuff up. Anyway, who needs grace—free favor—more than someone who has another person following up with them when they may or may not have finished or carried out the thing that the person is following up with them about in the first place?

Now I ask you….do Ed and vicki! both owe me $100 for my Haiti trip? You bet your ass.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mom's Mispronunciation Disorder

My mom: "So when are you going to Tahiti?"
Me: "What? Tahiti? When did I say I was going to Tahiti?"
My mom: "You know, in October."
Me: "Oh. You mean Haiti, not Tahiti."

Five minutes later.

My mom: "How far away is Hades?"
Me: "Haiti, mom. Hades is hell and I'm not going to hell."
My mom: "Well how far away is it?"
Me: "Haiti is below Florida".
My mom: "Oh, so it isn't too far away."
Me: "No, but these conversations will drive me to Hades."

The Push and Pull of Haiti

A week ago I got an email that froze the blood in my veins like water pipes in Antarctica. It was an email informing me that my October teaching trip to Oregon had been canceled. The reason I reacted so strongly was because I knew there was a trip to Haiti planned for the same week, and the only thing that had kept me from signing up for Haiti was this other commitment.

Knowing that I was now available to go to Haiti, the first thing I did was to quiet myself in my big easy chair, and pray about it. I felt a strong inclination to go. So I emailed Beyond Borders, to see if they were still planning a trip for October, and they said that they were not going to offer the trip in October, but there is a possibility of one in November, and probably another in late December. There are a lot of extraneous details about specific travel dates and people going to and from Haiti, but that is not what I want to write about.

What I want to write about it the push and pull of Haiti.

The Pull of Haiti
One of the biggest things pulling me to Haiti is that I want to say “yes” as an act of obedience to the Voice that has been calling me to go to Haiti. I don’t know why I have Haiti in heart. It’s just there. As I’ve written before, my interest was roused when I read about Haitians making dirt cakes to fill their bellies, and my sense of sadness and outrage has continued. But unless I actually get on a plane and GO, I am never going to know what the heck that Voice was all about.

The Push of Haiti
Haiti is a developing country that struggled through hard times long before January’s earthquake made things even more difficult to live and survive there. In my past travels to developing countries I’ve paid a high emotional toll-- and perhaps spiritual toll— equal to at least one million trips across the Golden Gate of my heart and spirit. It’s hard to be around the poverty, the crime, the dirtiness, the weariness from being on guard against being hustled, scammed, cheated, and stolen from. I hate walking around developing countries imagining locals looking at me like a walking ATM machine.

The Pull of Haiti
Through the Transformational Travel program, it’s kind of Beyond Borders’ job to make Haiti and the Haitians more approachable and welcoming to the people going on these trips. Traveling with a program like this would be a much different experience than my usual method of showing up somewhere alone with my backpack and passport saying “here I am!” In this rare case, am drawn to the facilitated approach where I can meet and make friends with locals and be exposed to the amazing work being done in collaboration with Haitians.

The Push of Haiti
Parting with $2,000 for program fees and flights is a terrible idea at a time when I am underemployed and my current consulting opportunities are scarce at best. Not only is my financial budget going to suffer, but my time budget will also take a hit. Since September/October is the start up time for a lot of the programs that I work with, Fall is a awful time for me to go running off for 1-2 weeks. I’ll be scrambling to catch up when I get back.

The Pull of Haiti
There is something to be said about the appeal of saying YES to an adventure in the midst of countless unknowns and fears. At my age most people have families, jobs, and mortgages, and they have defaulted to a safety zone that they call their life. To drop everything and go to Haiti is adventurous, hard core, crazy, exhilarating. This is the way I want to live.

I believe I’m called to go, so I will go. The details of when, what, who, and how will be revealed in their time.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Reflection: On That Day Everybody Ate

On that Day Everybody Ate, by Margaret Trost.

Ms. Trost’s story begins with a “reverse mission” trip to Haiti in which the goal of the hosting organization is for the participants to be transformed. She volunteered in a hospital and orphanage and observed first-hand the physical hunger that the Haitian people suffer and the spiritual satiety they posses. She returned to the U.S. so transformed that she recognized a series of events for what they were—a personal call to help feed the hungry children and adults in Haiti.

Partnering with a local Haitian Catholic church, she raised the money to start a feeding program that provided one hardy meal a week to 500 children—some of whom walked 5 miles to get that meal. Donations kept rolling in so she started a non profit—the What If? Foundation, based in Berkeley-- and they were soon feeding 1,000 people five days a week, as well as running a summer camp and sending some kids to school with scholarships.

All of this happened before this year’s earthquake in Haiti. Their kitchens in Haiti were miraculously spared severe earthquake damage, so in the aftermath of the disaster they are now serving about 2,000 meals a day.

All right then. Ever since 2008 when I read about Haitians eating “mud cookies” (made out of lard, salt, and dirt), Haiti has been in the back of my mind nagging at me like an item on my grocery list that I just can’t recollect. A logical next step would have been to go to Haiti earlier this year after the January 15th earthquake, but I feared that there was so much chaos in Haiti at that time that my trip and intentions would be wasted. I’m still waiting for my call to Haiti and it feels like I’m revving my engine at the red light, waiting for it to turn green so that I can peel out over the starting line.

Until I get that green light, I’m pondering some of the lessons from this book.

1) The reason Margaret Trost was on the original trip to Haiti in the first place was because her husband had unexpectedly died 18 months earlier. Her life as she knew it had ended, and she was ripe for a new beginning. Oftentimes something new doesn’t begin until we have experienced and honored an ending. I’m on the watch for endings in my life (jobs, relationships, interests, etc).

2) The Haitian women who partnered with Ms. Trost in the original once-a-week feeding were women who worked full-time jobs in addition to caring for their children. However, they still carved out time to go to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning, buying sackfuls of rice, beans and vegetables, then cooking all day and night Saturday, then serving 500 meals, and then finally cleaning up on Sunday after church. The author describes their joy as they sat in a circle peeling carrots, picking bugs and rocks out of the rice, cooking the meal with love and care. Where, oh where is my heart for service like that? I considered it a monumental sacrifice to dedicate two nights in a row recently to cooking a meal for the homeless one night, and serving it the next night.

3) I’m still trying to figure out what to do with mathematical and ethical incongruencies like that the money I spent on organic strawberries at the farmer’s market yesterday could feed 24 Haitian children their one meal of the week. Or that I have a cupboard full of pasta, beans, and sauces, and Haitian mothers are baking “mud cookies” in the sun to give their children something to fill their tummies.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Drive Slowly

She snuck into the quiet chapel about 10 minutes after the liturgy had begun. Jingling her keys restlessly in her left hand, she plunked down on the bench beside me, exuding a nervous energy. The liturgy rolled on. She shifted her feet. Choruses were chanted. She stretched her arms. Scriptures were read. She inspected the ceiling. Prayers were spoken. She blurted out call and response one beat ahead of everyone else. I started thinking of her as the Frenzied Female.

Officiating monk: “The Lord be with you”.
Frenzied Female: “Andalsowithyou”.

At the appropriate time in the liturgy the monks formed an inner circle around the altar and the retreatants stood as an outside circle along the walls. Frenzied Female stood next to me. More Scripture readings, more prayers, and then the passing of the peace. Hesitant retreatants received robust hugs from grinning monks.

Retreatants and monks: “Peace to you.”
Frenzied Female: “Peace to you father, brother—WHATEVER IT IS!”
The kindly monk graciously smiled and nodded.

The elements of wine and bread were ceremoniously served up. I waited patiently for the monks to go through the line first, and the Frenzied Female kept inching toward me, trying to get me to cut in their line.

Hissing Frenzied Female: “Areyougoingtogo?”
Me: “Yes, I’m going to go…”

After the Eucharist service my 5 day retreat was over, so with great regret I got in my car and started down the two mile road to coastal Highway 1. About a third of the way down, I glimpsed a car in my rear view mirror and within seconds it bore down on me. “Who would be tailgating me from a monastery?” I thought. I felt an immediate sense of urgency and an annoyance at being shaken out of my peacefulness during my first five minutes off the mountain. It was rude, obtrusive, and incongruous.

Nevertheless, the driver of the Volvo Stationwagon didn’t back off from tailgating me. As soon as I could, I pulled over at a turnoff and the Volvo whizzed past me. The driver wore dark sunglasses, she stared straight ahead, and she didn’t give me a glance or a wave of “thanks” for letting her pass me. The driver was the Frenzied Female.

Car idling, I stared in disbelief at the dust her car was churning up down the road. Easing my car into gear, I looked up through my windshield at a hand-painted sign the monks had posted by the road.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mustangs Roaming the American West

I spotted a wild herd of at least 25 Mustangs roaming the California coast between Santa Cruz and Hearst Castle. Clustering at the best vista points, they cling to the cliffs overlooking spectacular bridges constructed in the 1950’s. They are playful and beautiful-- their bodies gleaming in the California sun. Symbols of freedom and adventure, the Mustangs roam unfettered throughout the American west, wind blowing past them as they race up and down the coast. They travel to isolated areas, embracing the wonders of the natural world and invoking the pioneer spirit. Mustangs are slightly domesticated and are one of the most splendid means of transportation known to man.

I speak, of course, of the Ford Mustang convertible. Highway 1 is rife with them. Blue ones, yellow ones, black ones, red ones. And there are only two combinations of people riding in them:
1) middle-aged man/woman couples indulging in a mid-life crisis
2) four or five screeching young women indulging in a weekend bachelorette party

A Ford Mustang convertible can be rented from rental car companies for the reasonable cost of $85.46 per day—which is a small price to pay for roaming the coast looking like the coolest cat in town.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Why California Doesn’t Suck

YES, California has…
Wild Fires
Heinous State Budget Deficit
A Legislature that Can’t Get the Job done
The Governator
Atrocious Education System
Insane Traffic and Congestion

BUT, this is why California doesn’t suck:
Big Sur, California Coast, Highway 1
I rest my case.

Easing Into Sweet Silence

I knew I had eased into sweet silence when I woke up in the middle of the night thinking “what the heck is that infernal racket?” And really it was just a deer walking on the gravel in my garden.

At the monastery where I spent my silent retreat, every retreatant has their own simple room with a single bed, a desk, and a rocking chair. The desk faces out a window overlooking the retreatants’ private garden, and the garden overlooks the mountains, fog, and the Pacific Ocean.

As I lounged in my garden, a stellar jay hopped from branch to branch in the fig tree. Two hummingbirds whizzed by, playing follow the leader. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves of the Morning Glory creeping up the fence. The faint sound of barking sea lions echoed uphill from the seaside. Various birds chirped, cheeped, screeched, and twittered. A bee buzzed happily as it drew nectar from a Sticky Monkey Flower.

In San Francisco my ears are continually assaulted by the sounds of Muni rushing down the tracks of Judah Street, automobiles racing to the next stop sign, sirens, neighbor’s parties, and homeless couples yelling at each other on the sidewalk “I’M NOT DRUNK!” (Note to the clueless- pretty much every time you find yourself yelling “I’M NOT DRUNK!” to your significant other, the chances are that you ARE drunk)

I know a lot of fabulous people who intensely dislike silence. Silence provides the opportunity for unpleasant thoughts to be heard in their heads. Silence makes people feel lonely. Silence feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar. But I crave silence. Immediately upon arrival, I sat down in my garden and eased into the silence like it was a fur-covered La-Z Boy recliner. The chorus of animal and insect voices resounded, but believing in this proverb, I kept my mouth closed:

Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.

Wildlife Welcome Wagon

In the absence of human contact and communication for my 5 day retreat, the local wildlife stepped up to fill the void. I mean, they really rolled out the welcome wagon. In the first 10 minutes in my private garden a plump, 6-inch long lizard scurried along the wooden fence and stopped 2 feet in front of where I was sitting. She tilted her head to better cock one eye at me, and I held my breath to stare back. After a 5 minute stare-down, apparently determining that I had passed muster to sit in her garden, she went on her way.

Then a whole family of rowdy quail invaded my garden like they owned the place. They are the California State bird, so I guess there is some entitlement. The head quail stood apart and watched over the covey, with her “plume” (that funny squiggly thing on top of her head) waggling her pleasure or displeasure. The babies rushed madly about the garden, tossing small sticks and leaves in the air like women at a 75% off clothing sale.

When the sun made a downward turn towards the sea, the bunnies came out. Little grey bunnies with white tails. They tentatively nibbled grass, noses twitching, ears perking at minute sounds, eyes on the lookout for circling hawks. They occasionally stood up on their back legs to peer at me from 4 more inches of higher ground. But try as I might, none of them would let me scoop them up and give them a big hug and kiss on the nose.

The deer came fashionably late to the garden at dusk. One-by-one they strolled by my fence, peering curiously into my room before heading downhill to graze for the evening.

By this time it was starting to feel like that scene in Cinderella where all the mice and birds run about gleefully singing,
“Cinderelly, Cinderelly,
And we'll make a lovely dress for Cinderelly!”
By day's end I half expected this enchanted place to produce a talking mouse who would start sewing me a ball gown.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Silent on the Details

Last week I savored every hour of a 5 day silent retreat at a Franciscan monastery below Big Sur. My purposes for going were to be quiet, to clear the clattering in my mind, and to listen to the primary sound that matters to me—the voice of Mystery. And while the retreat was life-giving and life-changing, I’m reluctant to write about it in depth, because the experience was something akin to going on a romantic weekend tryst with a lover.

In the same way that a loving couple wouldn’t return from a weekend spouting detailed descriptions of their intimacy—“and as we laid in each other’s arms we talked about…”, “and we made love this many times…with this position_____ being a mind-numbing favorite…”, “and we both wept as we told each other…” –- so too it would be indecorous to reveal sordid details of pillow talk with Mystery.

It was fitting to kiss and tell when we were in high school, but giving intimate details of Love is just bad form when we are older. A sacred relationship of body, heart, and soul should be shielded from the profane at all costs. Sure, there are plenty of brazen bloggers who pin their spiritual delicates on the internet clothes line, but I’m not one of them.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Pets Taking a Dirt Nap

I'm assuming this is a parrot- and it's the oldest animal in the cemetery at 51 years old

a bunny
It would take Frodo a very long time to get that damn Ring if he was a turtle
Not just a lizard-- that's Mr. Iguana to you.
a fishy
a kitty (20 years old!)
And my favorite.... a couple of GREAT hamsters!

Presidio Pet Cemetery

Lord knows I cried my eyes out for days when I had to euthanize my beloved black cat, Bart, many years ago. So the pain of losing a cherished pet is not lost on me but I was surprised and touched by my visit to the Pet Cemetery in the Presidio recently.

The pet cemetery sits on a slight incline on a plot of ground about 100 feet wide by 200 feet long. The soil is dry and sandy and it is the kind of place where you are always looking out for snakes. Gopher holes frequently collapsed beneath my feet, making me wonder exactly how many animal corpses I was stepping on. Bright pink flower bushes swayed in the wind and tall weeds struck a pose against wooden and stone tombstones. The beating sun, fog, and salt air were expediting the decay of favorite chew toys and stuffed animals leaned haphazardly against their owners’ grave. Plastic red and yellow roses were stuck straight up in the ground like miniature street lights.

Grieving pet owners went to varying levels of trouble to send their felines off into the Great Sandbox or their canines into the Great Dog Run in the Sky. Some of the gravesites are carefully surrounded by tiny 6” high wooden fences, while others appear a little more slap-dash in style. Many of the grave markers are obviously painstakingly hand-written by a child, while other pets are honored with granite grave markers by full grown adults with too much money on their hands (as in the case of this photo above, where this dog must have been something else because she only lived four years to make her mark on the world)

I puzzled over a few grave markers that spoke of animals being loved by certain “captains” or “majors” until I remembered that I was on an army post, and more specifically, the designated place where military men and women buried their favored pets.

My quiet meandering was interrupted by an open air double-decker tour bus pausing in front of the cemetery. I looked over to find dozens of Chinese tourists quietly staring at me. The guide said something into his microphone making everyone burst into laughter. I imagine he said something like “And if you look over here to your left you will see a crazy American woman, grieving the recent death of her favorite chowchilla.”

"If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went." ~Will Rogers

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Five Senses of San Francisco’s Presidio

I’ve always found the Presidio to be quite daunting with its maze of roads, trails, and cream-colored military buildings—it’s inevitable to get lost there. But with a long 4th of July weekend upon me, I desired to explore a place that most tourists and San Francisco locals wouldn’t bother with. So I parked at the top of the Presidio, secured a map of an outdoor installation called “Presidio Habitats” and wandered solo around the mountain while throngs of people strolled the waterfront below me.

I was wrong to avoid the Presidio for so long. It is a City treasure with tranquil woodlands, well-kept trails, sweeping vistas, indigenous wild flowers, unusual glimpses of the Golden Gate Bridge peeping over at you, military and San Francisco history, and delightful secret community gardens. If I owned a car, I wouldn’t mind living in one of the houses in the Presidio. The reclaimed officer’s quarters are surrounded by manicured lawns, tall palm trees, and living there appears to amount to peaceful, natural living in the middle of a metropolis.

While exploring the Presidio...

I SAW: clusters of Cypress trees illuminated on one side by the sun; eight foot high yarrow flowers; Chinese porcelain vases secured high in a tree for screech owls to nest in; bright red Indian Paintbrush flowers; remnants of abandoned concrete bunkers; the crisp, clean, deceptively shiny leaves of poison oak; a hummingbird flitting about a community garden like it was a two dollar Vegas buffet.

I SMELLED: wispy stalks of wild fennel; the energizing aroma of a grove of Eucalyptus trees; the salt air wafting off the water at the Golden Gate.

I TASTED: smooth sweet leaves of Miner’s lettuce; the first sun-warmed blackberries of the summer season.

I HEARD: birds flitting about in the dried grasses of a bird sanctuary; the long horn blasts of tugboats and container ships communicating their next moves; massive treetops straining and creaking in the breeze; wind chimes hung by tomato plants in an attempt to keep birds away.

I TOUCHED: the long stringy bark of a Eucalyptus tree; the smooth, red, hard trunk of a Madrone; the flaking, gray bark of a Cypress tree; soft airy “snowballs” floating from long thin stems; the fuzzy “pea pods” of a purple flowered bush; pine tree branches laden with dozens of heavy pine cones.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Five Senses of San Francisco's Chinatown

As I am currently lacking the time and money to travel internationally, today I explored some back streets of the old Barbary Coast. Boasting the title as the largest Chinese enclave in the USA, San Francisco’s Chinatown seems like another country. (A google search unveils two different answers to the question of which is the biggest Chinatown in the USA— New York or San Francisco. A common explanation is that San Francisco has the most people in their Chinatown, and NYC has the biggest geographical area for their Chinatown).

Chinatown is full of vegetables, music, dining experiences, games, and customs that are unfamiliar to me. Most signs are written in Chinese script, and even when things were written in English, I still didn’t know what they were. “Dried Medlar” anyone? So I engaged all five senses for a few hours and this is what I experienced.

While walking through Chinatown…

I HEARD: restaurant workers banging pots and laughing and joking in Cantonese; the nauseating sound of extensive throat clearing and the frequent hocking of loogies; older Chinese women cackling over snacks and cards

I TASTED: Longan ice cream textured with chunks of what tasted like sweet cream cheese; a fluffy, hot, steamed lotus bun

I SMELLED: the super sweet aroma of fresh baked fortune cookies; open bins of dried fish and shellfish; incense wafting from the Buddhist temples and the gift shops

I SAW: dried shark fins, sea slugs, chitons, and seahorses in jars; an enormous fortune cookie the size of a large grapefruit; narrow Spofford Alley, historical home of Chinese revolutionaries who plotted to overthrow the government in China; men gathered in tight clusters playing games with round tiles and playing cards in Portsmouth Square

I TOUCHED: the smooth, worn wooden beads of an abacus that a merchant still uses to calculate purchases; leafy sprigs of bamboo plants; bricks from the Chinese Baptist Church that was erected in 1888, destroyed by the 1906 earthquake fires, and then rebuilt in 1908

Sunday, May 9, 2010

More Frolicking, Please

Frolic: (def) to play and run about happily

Yesterday I spent a few hours at Hidden Villa, a place that I have come to recognise as sacred space for myself. I strolled through the sunny garden, trying to ascertain the difference between rhubarb and red chard. I breathed in the aromas of various herbs and at least 5 different types of sage, and crawled around on the ground until I could pinpoint which plant was smelling like chamomile. I made friends with the pigs, the cows, the sheep, and the goats. I yanked leaves off a bay tree and tucked some in my pocket for making red pasta sauce later. I admired the chickens, the green valley, the compost pile, the butterflies.

And after a scrumptious picnic lunch savored beside a frisky stream, I frolicked.

I tromped through the middle of the stream, not caring that my jeans were getting wet. I ducked under poison oak branches dangling dangerously over the water, and listened to the crunch crunch of my Tevas on pebbles. I searched for newts, tiny fish, and the illusive Giant Pacific Salamander. I was happy and carefree, like I used to be when I was a kid searching for crawdads in a stream near where I grew up.

Lately life has been about Responsibilities and Duties and Shoulds. So to spend a few hours frolicking and exploring with child-like wonder has been good for my soul. And while having an afternoon of frolic is somewhat akin to eating one pistachio nut and having to stop, I trust that my Creator will happily point me to the whole bag of pistachios (or the pistachio factory) with perfect timing and grace.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Shadow and Future Self

My faith community (Tribe) did an activity a couple of months back where we staged portraits as our shadow and future selves. Our Future Self is the wonderful, amazing, whole person that we aspire to be under the influence of our Creator. Our Shadow Self is the dark part of our being- the brokenness that keeps us from living into all the goodness that the Creator has for us.

Brace yourself. What you are going to see next is not pretty.
This is my Shadow Self.

My Shadow Self is constantly exhausted, has no joy in her life, and is weighed down by the heavy loads of Responsibility, Duty, and other sundry Burdens. I call her Malignant Mel. This version of Melanie is drained, uninspired, struggles to keep afloat, and is not pleasant to be around.

I hate it when Malignant Mel is living with me, flying a heavy black flag of skull and crossbones above my residence. I thought Malignant Mel had been loitering around in the dark shadows of my Self for about the last 6 months until some close friends gently corrected me, “Ummmm… it’s been more like TWO YEARS.”

Needless to say, it is time for my Shadow Self to PISS OFF.

This is my Future Self.

My Future Self moves through life with purpose and calling. Her name is Magic Mel because she is propelled by a Supernatural Force. She knows what is important to her and she has energy for her passions. She draws from a limitless bucket of love, and she freely ladles out compassion, justice, joy, and goodwill. There is life and beauty around her, but better yet, she is life and beauty herself. A redbird of refreshment perches on her shoulder, constantly tweeting affirmations and suggesting thrilling directions in which to go.

With all of my heart I long to step into my Future Self.

Note- portraits of my entire Tribe were taken by our friend Melody Hansen, who is a fantastic photographer.