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Sam's Garden

The difference between my garden and Sam's is like the difference between a well-behaved class and a class with a substitute teacher where all hell has broken loose. At Sam's garden, each plant, in its place, thrives, evenly watered, free of weeds, lush, productive. There is an atmosphere of calm, peace, harmony. A little sterile? (Just look at that bare soil where no weed dare peak through to soil the pretty picture). Over at my garden, it's every plant for himself (or herself?). Grab your nutrients where you can, hope she remembers to water, and in the right amount. Plants struggle, a few look good, stalwart, confident, in spite of rather than because of the gardener's wayward care. Still, I love it. It's mine. We are friends.

Wait for the Gift

Yesterday, on NPR's Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviewed a doctor who works in a Resuscitation Clinic and studies near-death experiences. Nothing new until he got to the part about suicides. In his observation, ordinary near-death experiences are pretty universal: people of all ages, walks of life, cultures, continents experience white light, meet deceased friends and family members, generally experience bliss. The experiences of people, resuscitated, who have tried to commit suicide is also universal--but horrible. Wow. So, if you die of slashed wrists--if someone else does it, bliss; if you do it, terror. So many questions, so many implications.... What is sacred about the relationship between you and your body, that you killing your own body seems worse than if you killed another person? If this relationship with your physical body is sacred, then that informs so much more of how we care for it. Then again, what does it matter, terror or bliss at the last moment? Is there MORE? Surely, this too shall pass....

Taiko Intensive aftermath

Wow! It's been three months since I posted! In that time, highlights: I attended the first of a series of Biodynamic Workshops in Santa Cruz, which has inspired me to Stir Water ever since; Paul's son had a Chinese wedding, but never actually legally married (which turns out to have been a good thing); and two weeks ago I received a bill for the IRS for $9000, which has this week been resolved to a payment of $19.

Even so, perhaps the most life-changing event were the two Taiko Intensives I took, taught by San Jose Taiko. Each one was 3 days, 9-9 schedules; 7-10 students--taught by an equal number of SJT members! We drummmed and drummed and drummed, drills, exercises, songs, solos, jamming. Down drums, slant drums, shimes. Schedules were strict, the agenda diverse, simple, nourishing, appetizing lunches and snacks prepared by an SJT member. The highlight for me was the Saturday night when SJT performed--just for us students!!!! an exuberant, professional, rolicking performance, and THEN we all jammed together.

I came away inspired, deeply satisfied, awed. Also amazed that, with all that drumming I didn't get particularly tired nor particularly hungry nor particularly sore. To me, this exactly demonstrates (1) the Chinese belief about good exercise: it should give, not take, your energy; and (2) proper technique, using the body properly will not cause damage, even when done vigorously.

Comparison of this place, these people, this experience with Wadaiko leaves me.... unsure of what to do. Where SJT place is clean, neat, all drums and stands in good working order; the Wadaiko dojo is dirty, cluttered, disordered. Where SJT people are professional, consistent, generous, focused; Wadaiko teachers are easily distracted, afflicted with petty personal issues, digressive. Where SJT focuses first on proper technique, as the foundation of learning (and then composing!) songs, Wadaiko practices are all about playing songs. One after the other, songs they wrote with no opportnity for creativity. Where SJT welcomes me, my ideas, helps me with my problems; Wadaiko sees me as a threat to their autonomy, views my suggestions warily or ignores them altogether, preferring to work with their own "in-crowd".

At the same time, I owe Wadaiko a deep debt of gratitude because they welcomed me, got me started, enable me to play--and now are helping me make a drum.

So that's one fallout from this experience.

Another is that, weirdly, I've lost interest in gardening, beyond what I'm doing now. My upstairs neighbor has land, suggests we could forage, harvest and sell wild herbs? Sounds like a long drive, and hard work. He also has a friend with a farm near Fremont, asks if I can think of a crop that could be grown there? Sounds like more driving, a lot of work, on a big scale, with a lot of risks. Somehow, my mind is no longer interested. Right now my garden is producing more collards and lettuce than I can eat (the typical situation when anything you grow thrives). And, there are at least two groceries run by nice people where I would like to take my business. I also know that growing your own food costs more than buying it--by the time you factor in tools, seeds, amendments, structures needed, etc. I'm fine.

But DRUMMING. Now... this is where my heart is.


So far, so good

Here is what I have learned--what I know--so far:

The objective reality is Change.
The subjective reality is Paradox.
The appropriate attitude to take toward Change is Curiosity.
The appropriate attitude to take toward Paradox is Humor.

Whenever the mind has uncomfortable or unpleasant thoughts, move it to awareness of the water in your own body. Somehow, this dynamic, crystalline, resonant water is the purest, simplest expression of life. Observe, enquire, flow—and laugh.

Mind Full

Driving to lunch last week, Paul turned on the CD player in the car—and Pema Chodron’s voice emerged--teaching how to meditate! Bizarre?!? Not really. I know Paul is interested in audiobooks, specifically for listening to in the car. And I know that he watches movies with the sound off… so I know that his ears are sensitive. He hears but doesn’t listen. But I listened, and heard something new… so back home, I started from the beginning....

The beginning is Why meditate? Pema lays it all out very methodically, rationally. The goal, the purpose is to remove the cause of suffering. Not to remove suffering—but, even more deep, to remove the CAUSE. She reiterates the truism, so succinctly put, that Pain is inevitable, Suffering is optional. From this we know that suffering originates in the mind. She then described the procedure of meditation: How to sit, what to do-- watching the breath, coming back to the breath without recrimination, with a mind of patience, gentleness, sense of humor. At some point, she remarked, “Just notice how your mind creates both pain and pleasure.” Like an arrow hitting a target, suddenly, after hearing these words for years, even decades, I understood. My mind is creating my suffering.

Immediately I thought of my thought patterns of the day: Irritation, disappointment, frustration. THIS is my suffering. E.g., in music, I am not making progress with the guzheng; I don’t know the song repertoire (like I "know" pop songs of the ‘60s), I feel I’m wasting my time, I should go back to the piano, or even the harp. My job is menial. I’m renting, not owning a house, gardening at the generosity of other people. My body is disintegrating. and so it goes, on and on... in a perennial tone of irritation, disappointment, frustration, self-criticism, dissatisfaction.

At this moment, it struck me that my mind had created all of this static.
My life is what it is. It’s not good or bad, happy or not, rewarding or not—--all, ALL of these attitudes are values added by my MIND. Suddenly so many metaphors made sense: my mind as wet blanket, my mind as colored lens filtering all experience.
Next step: Obviously, if my mind is creating all this misery--creating the wall and then beating my head against it, the sensible thing is to STOP. Which I did. Immediate relief. Imagine that. It works.

Then… another epiphany: Out walking, I remembered Pema’s direction to, through the day, keep coming back to the breath. I did that. And felt, ah, the Breath. There it is, stable, reliable, persistent; inhale, exhale, morning and night, hot cold. While my MIND was just going everywhere, like a kite tossed in the wind. Suddenly I felt how, truly, the breath was my anchor in life, while the mind is just decorative entertainment. Imagine that.

The Yin of Sales

Selling stuff has been a recurring, intractable frustration in my life. I keep trying, but never succeed very well; each new project brings wild expectations that crash and burn. WHAT do I try to sell? Mainly products of my crafts—-knitting, calligraphy (as bookmarks), sewing. WHY do I try to sell? Ostensibly, very practically, because it gives me a reason to continue crafting; if I don’t get rid of what I make, it accumulates in my garage. Why don’t I just give these things away? Ah, good question. I think this is because I feel that people don’t value what they are given and because I myself don’t like to receive stuff. When money exchanges hands, the value to both parties is clear.

Possibly, my dilemma boils down to two mutually exclusive behaviors.
On the one hand, I have a compulsion to sell stuff. When people are willing to pay for what I make I feel good, self-affirmed... and it clears my garage..
On the other hand, because I don’t shop much, I don’t really know what people like to buy. Bottom line: I am pinning my self-worth on what is to me a mysterious behavior of other people. Like a blind man throwing darts.

Last Sunday’s experience seems to have given me important new insights. I hope! It began at the Ananda Artisan Fair. This was a 2-hour event after the Ananda church service; the vendors were all people related to the Ananda community, and the shoppers were all service attendees. There were about 10 tables of wares…. Indian clothing, sacred pictures, scarves, jams, wooden altars. I had some jam, sauerkraut, a little cookbook, and steering wheel covers. (These covers slip over the steering wheel to keep the wheel from getting seeringly hot when parked in the hot sun. I have had this problem, so I see the value of them!) These covers are beautiful, and relatively simple to make. A friend showed me hers last week, suggesting it could be a fund-raiser. Offering them at the Artisan Fair was a kind of market test.

I arrived early; laid out my wares on my allotted table, and waited. Just before the Fair was to begin, an Indian family arrived, bearing cupcakes to sell. No place but the end of my table—so I welcomed them. The wife took command, the kids ran around, the husband (Jerry) struck up a conversation with me. $3 each for each coconut cupcake. Seemed expensive to ME, but what do I know?

Jerry was friendly and engaging. When the first shoppers appeared, he astounded me by accosting them, “Say, look at these beautiful steering wheel covers!” Following up on this intro, I spoke to the next few people who came and soon sold one, the most beautiful one. Later I learned that Jerry works in sales. He says when he started out, other salesmen had to teach him how; he learned well. At one point he was selling cookies door to door. He would go to streets where other salesmen could not sell any, and people would turn up asking him what he was selling, almost asking to buy. Hmm. We spoke more about his experiences. In the end they sold all but 4 of the 3 dozen cupcakes they had brought. I sold almost all of the jars of sauerkraut I had brought, a few jams, one cookbook, but no more steering wheel covers! Not bad.

From there, I went to a nearby farmer’s market, which was just closing, in a drizzling rain. Standing off to the side, eating a plate of lunch, one of the vendors came around giving away tubs of Indian curry—leftovers I presumed. When he got to me, he gave me not one but TWO. Nice! Next I stopped at a health food store. Checking out, I guessed a $20 bill would cover my purchases, and handed that to the cashier--but not quite enough. As I fumbled with my wallet the cashier said, oh, don’t bother, I can give you 10% discount, which brings your total to under $20. Well, thank you! I marveled at this second display of random generosity.

Ok: So what did I learn about selling?
1) Steering wheel cover: The one that sold was special from the start. Somehow it made people (well, women for sure) want to own it. The two clerks that saw it—one at the quilting shop, one at the fabric store—both wanted to buy one. Take-home lesson: in order to sell, an object needs to be not just beautiful and/or useful, but it must create in shoppers the desire to own it. I could feel just what they experienced. I will try to apply this criteria to what I am making now (i.e., knitted and crocheted hats, bookmarks)—I need to be looking for/trying to create that magical quality that draws and holds attention. This is art.
2) Jerry. From his stories and from my experience being with him, I guess that after interacting with him, people simply feel generous. Is this the yin-yang dichotomy in action? Effective selling is less a matter of aggression (yang) and more a matter of receptivity (yin)? Selling starts with the attitude of the seller. The goal is to awaken generosity. If Gandhi’s famous quotation, “First be the change you want to see”, applies here, then when I am selling something to go in with the attitude that I am giving, from a feeling of generosity.

Hope springs eternal for wild expectations realized!

Spirit Rising

The closest I’ve come to a religious experience happened at the last meeting of the Western Horticultural Society. I rode over with friends. They were complaining. Bitching, actually, in the truest sense of the word. Selfish whining about management of the community garden where they share a plot. Management wants to put a limit on how many years an individual can keep a plot, while management is not eliminating plot owners who don’t actively garden all year long. Both of these friends of mine have houses, with large backyards where they could and do have gardens; these are not apartment dwellers with nowhere else to garden. Not only that, both of these people eat less than half of the produce they grow; much of it ends up in the trash. Yes, the trash. Not even a compost pile. So, listening to this I became increasingly morose. Arriving at the meeting, I physically distanced myself from them… and ended up at a table selling the book written by the features speaker of the meeting: “A Californian’s Guide to the Trees Among Us.” I picked up one, and immediately knew this was a book to own. Both Latin and common names, clean color pictures of the tree in the landscape, close ups of the leaves and flowers, an intelligent description, and scattered quotes from sources as diverse as Shakespeare and Ogden Nash PLUS a KEY for identifying specimens! I have been wishing I knew the plants in the yards in my neighborhood, but haven’t found a useful reference; this seemed to be IT. I was thrilled. At this point, the bookseller announced, “And here’s the author himself!” Indeed there he was, as fresh and engaging as the book itself.

His talk was even better. The thrust of his work, teaching at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, centers on the question, “How to get people interested in the trees around us?” He himself is thrilled, awed, amazed, and charmed by the diversity, beauty, perseverance, and value of trees. His question has been my question; his feelings awakened my own passion for the woods and gardens of Virginia, Massachusetts, Hong Kong…. He was showing me the answer. In this technological age, the average urban person has no need to know anything about nature. (Do you know that the average person can identify close to 1000 corporate logos, but less than 20 trees?) The most significant, influential aspects of our lives, from taxes to internet access, are out of our control and all cost money. Food is a minor component in the mix. We are pretty much insulated from the effects of weather; grocery stores seem to be full of the same stuff no matter what the season. So why be interested in nature? The answer: Could it be—just because it’s interesting? Nature is our own life force, manifest. To be interested in nature around us is to marvel at our own bodies. The way to awaken that sense of wonder in others is simply to radiate your own sense of wonder. ? Well, something like that….

As I sat there I felt my spirit rise. All of the petty talk in the car coming over fell away, seemed totally irrelevant, not worth any kind of a second thought. I felt like the metaphorical lotus rising out of the mud to bloom, gloriously! I thought of Jesus calling those fishermen to drop their nets and follow him; I knew how they could do it without a second thought.

But Matt Ritter is not looking for followers. He is not proselytizing; he was just showing us how to be, in our own way, in our own lives. I got the message, and I can recall that feeling now, at will. Any time, anywhere, with any people, when I feel conversation and energies descending into petty whining or complaining of any sort, I think of Matt Ritter’s sparkling energy, and I rise.

Speaking pajamas

Why don’t people attend to their conversation the way they attend to their appearance? People don’t wear the same thing to a job interview as they would to the grocery; they wouldn't wear the same thing whether meeting Michelle Obama or Michelle Garnaut--So why is their conversation the same, no matter who’s around? Or is it just the people I know who do this? Sunday I was with a friend in San Francisco; for this friend, seeing a residence block in the distance, sparked an endless trail of trivia. She had visited that block, invited by some acquaintance—or was it a relative?—of her neighbor whose husband had died tragically—or did he simply pass away?—leaving her with three children, one of whom…. At this point, I stopped her, cold, "Why are you telling me this? I don’t know this person, I don’t even know the person you knew who knew this person, I don’t have children, how could you think I have any interest in any aspect of this story?”. She (finally) lapsed into silence, which seemed awkward for her but a relief for me. What a waste of time.

This, I believe, is not uncommon. People just talk. Whatever is in their mind spills out through their mouth. It’s like wearing pajamas wherever you go. Right?

Humor me

All of my taiko buddies are going to see our friend take the lead role in an amateur production of “Harvey”. “Harvey” is a story, a play, and a motion picture starring Jimmie Stewart; the protagonist is a sweet man who has an invisible friend, Harvey, a rabbit; he lives with his sister and niece (and this rabbit) in their old family house in the 1940s. I watched part of it, and quit (in disgust) after 20 minutes—decidedly before the part where the sweet man’s sister is put away in an insane asylum when she tries to get HIM committed because she believes his presence (with Harvey) is ruining her daughter’s chances of finding a husband. Somehow I don’t find this plot funny at all; it makes me sullen and angry just to think of it.

So I, of all my taiko buddies, will be the only one not attending the performance—such is the strength of my antipathy. Naturally, I’ve been contemplating this. Why do I not find it funny, while so many people do? One thing: I have no sense of humor about delusion. This man and his friend Harvey rather remind me of religious people and their Secret Friend God … And just as in so many religious histories, somebody suffers needlessly for being on the wrong side of the delusion.

Ok. So. What DO I find funny? A Zen quote comes to mind: “Life is like setting out to sea in a boat that you know will sink.” Makes me smile every time. Why? Actually, it’s tragic. But instead of railing my destiny, I see my folly, I embrace irrationallity, I continue happily doing this absurd, irrational thing called Living, as though it were important, I continue Search for Meaning. It doesn’t bother me; it doesn’t make me angry—it makes me smile. OK: So…. In the case of delusion, is my lack of sense of humor somehow rooted in NOT seeing some absurdity? Am I hanging on to some belief while denying some other, equally true, reality? Hmm. I suspect so. I further suspect that this type of denial underlies other things I have no sense of humor about. In this case, lack of sense of humor is the red flag of mistaken beliefs, errors of thinking that are limiting, compromising my life. Ruining my fun. Well, maybe, but, so far, in the case of Harvey, I haven’t found what it is, and I’m not buying a ticket.

Gardening is the Answer

According to NPR, unemployed people are becoming depressed. This is a serious problem. I have the answer: They should all go out and garden. Nobody can be depressed when they garden. There is plenty of land around, just waiting to be tilled, turned, planted, weeded, appreciated. Instead of sitting in Starbucks bemoaning their fate or spewing out resumes, they should try sitting in a garden --plant some seeds, pull weeds, talk to the crickets, listen to the birds, etc. Grow food.

It worked for me. In 1973, after two years growing increasingly miserable at university, I got a job in a rose garden. Pruning. 6 hours a day, mostly on my hands and knees. After six weeks, lightning struck. Something shifted. I left the one university, got into another, and .... generally felt better.

Anybody need seeds?