Frugality Is Not a Crime

German chapel ornament

When you have to do it, belt-tightening’s no joke. But, gladly, most Americans don’t have to — not even in this economy. […]

If you’re blessed with good fortune in these hard times, you’re not helping anyone if you let frugality chic stop you and yours from having a very Merry Christmas indeed.

I nearly choked on my soy milk when I heard this commentary on Marketplace this morning. It’s yet another story about how resisting the urge to spend as much as possible this Christmas makes you worse than Scrooge – it makes you the scourge of capitalism and the American way of life.

I make no claims about having much knowledge of the economy. Nearly all of my news comes from NPR, and I know that’s not like being a daily reader of the Wall Street Journal. Maybe the commentator, Will Wilkinson, is exactly right and austerity is one of the factors that makes an already shaky economy begin to look even worse.

My issue is not with this interpretation of the the law of supply and demand, it is that we are stuck in a system that can only be salvaged if we acquire more stuff.

Wasn’t it greed that got us into this problem in the first place? How can buying more Gap sweaters in bizarre colors just because they are on sale and your sweetie should have a few more boxes to open make the world any more livable?

Change is a scary thing. Realizing that the global economic structures are being turned upside down and may never look the same again is frightening. Trying to imagine what might come after U.S. domination seems unfathomable for most of us in these fifty states.

Clinging to the very structures that have been proven to betray us is not helping matters. Continuing to shop like everything is normal isn’t the soothing balm the ad campaigns and the radio experts are trying to convince us it is.

detail of our treeWhat if we are choosing to buy less and handcraft more? What if it just makes sense to give to charity instead of purchase a book that your uncle will never give himself time to read? What if this down economy, even if you are yet unscathed, is just the reason you were looking for to ditch materialism and show your family you love them by giving them less clutter, not more?

I cannot believe that this financial crisis is just a fluke of the markets. With all of the internal shifts that are forcing people to look at their lives in entirely new ways, we need our relationship with money and consumerism to be transformed as well.

Our souls need room to breathe. Wouldn’t there be a lot more time to figure out how to do that if we spent less time in the mall and less time dusting our new trinkets?

Our earth needs room to breathe. Won’t easing the yearly December burden of delivery trucks and crowded landfills and depleted resources be the greatest gift you could give to your Mother this holiday?

Unified Soul, Unified Self

Cornaro window

The elusive it we are seeking has so many different names. Union. Wholeness. Oneness. Balance. Wisdom. Enlightenment. Love.

All are shades of a desire to feel complete, to feel as if we can quit hoping and striving for Truth and just experience it.

An idea that keeps cropping up that I think helps us to get closer to this better place: non-duality.

Andrew Harvey was the first person I ever heard talk about having a non-dual relationship with the Divine. He offered the line by Sufi mystic Al Hallaj:

Between me and You, there is only me
Take away the me so that only You remain

The simple mathematics of this wisdom always stays with me. Meet the Divine by removing the only barrier that stands between us and God: the human ego.

Harvey talks a great deal about recognizing that we are not separate from God, but that we all carry the Sacred within us. We are all containers that hold Divine love and so we are always in union with God – if only we can allow this infinitely intimate relationship.

This idea of non-duality is also a beautiful way to look at the relationship that we have with our own true selves.

When we try to fool ourselves and the world that we really are several different people (the work self, the home self, the practical self, the creative self), we are setting up another set of barriers between us and happiness. We pretend that we can be productive and accomplished only if we can create a cast of characters who manage different aspects of life.

But, where ever you go, there you are – right? We need to lose the illusion that we can ever actually splinter ourselves or get in the way of our relationships with the true self.

What would happen if we all realize that the true sense of who we are does not have to be kept separate from the real world because we feel like we need to wear masks of protection?

How sweet could life be if we stopped living according to the dictates of the fragile ego and started living through the wisdom of the soul?

Between false self and true, there is only fear
Take away the fear so that only truth remains

Graffiti Philosophy: Everything Will Be Alright

Everything will be alright”

This phrase is written in tiny letters on the bathroom wall at work. Assuming that the staff has not taken to expressing themselves through gentle vandalism, I can only guess that a student plagued by looming deadlines or a broken heart that might never mend took it upon herself to share her affirmation with the rest of the world.

I cannot help that smile that I am lucky enough to work at a liberal arts college library where the graffiti is dedicated to such sweet, pure wisdom. It is one more thing that helps put into perspective the world of work in times like these.

Heart in the drive

For all that I loved the scholarly life when I was in school, all the emotional turmoil that sprang from too many hormones and too much beer and too little sleep and too few quiet moments are still vivid. I would never discount whatever drove that student to express herself in that hastily scribbled line, but I cannot help but think of those of us who already have our diplomas and who live in the “real world.” What do we think when we read “everything will be alright” each day?

This phrase hold special significance to me because it makes me hear Stephen Cope‘s voice every time. This aptly named author a few great books on yoga employs this phrase often (though to be exact, I think he says “everything will be OK”). He uses it to bring the scattered “puppy mind” back to stillness, to stop that constant monologue spurred by fear and regret that plays constantly in our heads. It isn’t Sanskrit, it isn’t much of a mantra, but what else do you really need when you are looking to create a moment of peace for yourself in the midst of chaos?

“Everything will be alright” is such a simple phrase, almost trite and probably over used, but why complicate things? Julian of Norwich gave us “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” Her line is little more like fine wine when it rolls off the tongue, but it is the same idea. We can wrap it around ourselves even when things seem to be at their darkest.

If the bedrock of capitalism starts to shift and a sanctuary like an elite college begins to feel the tremors when the greedy beast of our economy stumbles under the weight of its own foolish gluttony, is “everything will be alright” going to be enough?

If jobs are endangered and mortgage payments start to loom too large are those four little words going to protect us?

I think my answer to that is: they will have to.

We have always lived in an uncertain world, for all that it was not so obvious until this latest rash of bad news. It seems likely that all of our spiritual practices and all of our work to be centered and whole will be tested in new and powerful ways. I know I worry that my lovely little coping mechanisms might fail in those moments when “real life” in all of its insistent ugliness comes to call.

Again, I think there’s a simple answer: make sure those coping mechanisms are more than idle strategies you play with when life is smooth. Find a way to love yourself enough that you can gather your power and hone your strength and begin to truly believe, come what may, every little thing is gonna be alright.

Open to Change, Receptive to Healing

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What if it’s true? What if, truly, “we are the ones we have been waiting for“?

I have always loved this phrase. First I heard it on the lips of women who inspired me. Then I found June Jordan who first strung those words together in her powerful, earth-shifting poem. Alice Walker gave us a book that borrowed the line for its title. And then of course there was Barack Obama who turned the phrase into a something more than a campaign slogan and made it mean something national and something real.

The election results are a month old now, but all that shiny hope cannot have worn away yet, right? The inauguration is still ages away, so I am sure that we are all just marinating in possibility. Aren’t we?

I ask that question because there is a sneaky little part of me worries that complacency will creep in. And perhaps it already has in some ways. The economy is still sliding downward. Cabinet picks are less sexy than frenzied chants of “Yes we can!” Christmas is coming and there are too many thing to get done in the next three weeks to even remember all that election night champagne

This was not intended to be a post about post-election let down, nor am I trying to let a big old cynical moon eclipse our gorgeous new sun. Our lightning-fast news cycle would have us believe that such musings are so three weeks ago anyway.

I am actually thinking about the changes that I am seeing take root in my own life and in the lives of the people around me. These changes have nothing to do with the political and have everything to do with the personal. Of course, we know that eventually, those two spheres almost always start to blend together

Though I have been practicing Reiki for eight years, I have begun to dedicate myself to the path of a healer in the last year since I have been enrolled in a Healing Arts School. The beautiful sense of wisdom that finally takes root when we find we’re closer to the middle of our lives than to the beginning, combined with what I have learned in my classes, has totally shifted my perspective on the world. I know its been a long process, but suddenly I realize I am able to articulate my interest in alternative health and offer what abilities I have in service to others.

This evolution in the way I can be honest about my belief in our power to heal ourselves and the possibility of finding true wellness outside the strict confines of typical Western medicine has been downright infectious. Trusting in the intuitive power of my hands and others’ desire to heal, I have been able to offer my warm touch to people who never would have been receptive to such “out there,” “new age” ideas. I think this is successful both because I take a quiet approach, casually introducing what I do and what I believe and then allowing people to open up to me in any way they can and because I have new confidence in what I do.

People’s new sense of receptivity has very little to do with me, however. I am just lucky enough to have had the chance to observe it. Something within the individual is shifting. There is the recognition that the road we have all been careening along together is doing us more harm than good and that we need to find a new way.

If we are the change that we have been waiting for, we have to realize that change is here, now. Despite all the chaos in this world, people are finding the ability to open themselves up to new experiences and new wisdom.

How can we access and live this change ourselves and how can be the midwives of change for others?

My Table In the Town Square: Why I’m OK with being a blogger now

The internet is, quite simply, the new town square. Nothing more and nothing less, and in that square, there are utter idiots yelling at the tops of their lungs about crap, but there are small tables surrounded by people having true, powerful discourse. There are people handing out pamphlets. People on soap boxes. And then there are people strolling through, feeling a bit more alive, a bit more connected just by observing.

BlissChick has unwittingly become my muse of late. The above is her comment on yesterday’s post about self promotion, the strange necessity that we creative types have to come to grips with if we want to be heard about the chattering crowd.

Photo by Nathan Berry
Prague Square by Nathan Berry

She paints such a brilliant picture – I can see myself in this square. I want to be one of those people sitting at one of those tables, engaged in the sorts of conversations that change lives. The talk would be so brilliant that my companions and I can tune out the blowhards and the fear mongers and the endless trails of paparazzi fueled gossip.

At the same time, I remember thinking that this is a great metaphor, but I’ve never been a part of a town square like that, at least not in this country. In Europe I think I have been one of those passersby, enlivened by watching the locals acting out their lives in one of those bustling public spaces. Here in the States, however, those town squares, if they exist at all, may fill up for the Fourth of July parade, but otherwise remain a little forlorn, no longer the heart of the community.

It seems like the Internet came in to fill a serious void that we may all have been experiencing for quite a while. How long has it been since we lived in lively villages where expression and relationship ruled the day?dsc008212 Part of me wonders if those places every really existed, until I recall our friends’ more than idyllic village, Dornburg in eastern Germany. There, it might have become a wee bit claustrophobic, but it was incredible to walk the narrow lanes and know that everyone knew everyone else’s name.

Somehow I think I had myself convinced that blogging and all this virtual communication was somehow suspect, that this new means of communication had somehow stamped out a more vivid personal set of interactions. I worried that it was a pale facsimile of something better and more pure that once existed before. In fact, the ways that people communicate has always been in flux and rather than being the destructive force, the Internet gives us new ways to talk to each other that never would have been possible in the confines of a tiny town square. (I never read this book, but the title comes to mind when I start dipping into the topic of isolation and disconnection in American society.)

I know that none of these are new revelations, but one of the main functions of this this blog is help me really understand what might have seemed so obvious but which needed closer examination so that I could truly know. After months of writing in this space it is probably strange that I am only coming to peace with this practice now, but I suppose everything has to blossom and take root in its own time.

What can we do to make the conversations that we have on these far-flung flickering screens come to life in our offline worlds? How can we breath life into all of the community spaces we inhabit?

Pledging Allegiance to a New Flag

Opening for Ani DiFranco on Wednesday was an ageless, potty-mouthed bald dude with an unstoppable guitar and an undeniable voice. His goes by Hammel On Trial and he is… an experience. I think I remember being incited to join a chorus of “F@*$ YOU!” in the distant past, and I assume I joined in with gusto at the time. Expletives generally have a way of being more cathartic than belting out a good “Om,” but I only offered a half hearted contribution this time around.

Have I stifled my primal need to curse with a crowd under a sheen of gentrified repression or have I reached the point where that throwaway term that can be everything from a threat to a verbal comma no longer holds the same kind of power for me?

He occupies a necessary place in music and society – to hold up the mirror to our world’s racism and homophobia, the general fear of sex and rebellion, our inability to stomach some essential ugly truths. This is not to say that I want to play his CDs when I wake up in the morning or that I could have handled much more than his thirty minute warm up set (though warm up the place he certainly did), but I have respect for what he does.

I say that especially because even after all the anger and deliberate attempts to shock, which I have limited attention for, he offered this bit. It’s his new stab at the pledge of allegiance, written in response to his six year old son’s lessons in the age old recitation:

I will pledge allegiance to no more flags until they come up with one for the earth.

A republic of humans all races and colors for which they stand. One planet in an endless sea of other planets.And if they discover life on those, I’ll pledge allegiance to those too.With respect to your religion as you respect mine. Where liberty and justice is not determined by how much wealth you’ve accumulated,or your political or military power,or your sexual orientation, or how you control the media. Where no one can maintain their wealth as long as one person on the planet doesn’t have adequate food or shelter or health care or educational opportunity.

THIS IS THE FLAG I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO.

Caring for the Self: Selfish or Selfless?

“The work you are doing on the mat is a gift to everyone you love because it will make you strong and supple and allow you give the best of yourself to the world.” So many yoga teachers have offered this sort of encouragement and I have drunk it in greedily during many a long shoulder stand.

My cynical little shadow laughs that teachers who want to fill their studios at dinner time have to say such things in order to convince the class that it is better to focus on breath and form rather than whip up some pasta for the kids. The rest of me that understands the essential truth: we must nurture ourselves before we can ever offer authentic comfort to anyone we love.

Many of us have internalized this wisdom and understand its weight and worth. It brings us back to the mat and to these blogs and to countless other sweet habits that sustain us every day. To talk about these things in a space like this is just so much preaching to the converted.

At the same time, we constantly encounter those who do not make the choice to care for the body and the spirit. They don’t see that correlation between tending the self and being able to support for those we love. For me, “these people” who constantly put business and housework and the needs of others before their own are not disembodied, rhetorical devices: they are many of the people I live and work with every day.

I think it is obvious which path I believe is most effective, but I do not mean to stand in judgment over this other camp – they are doing the best that they can with the tools that seem most obvious to them. The dark circles under their eyes and their mysterious chronic pains are proof of their dedication to being all things to all people. All people except themselves, that is.

When I dodge out of work a little early to get to the chiropractor even when I know my colleagues suffer from much deeper back aches than me, I can’t help but wonder at how my choice may be perceived. Am I a self obsessed hypochondriac who puts her own spine before her career and getting dinner together? Am I judged for my weakness, for being a childless flibbity gibbet who spends her time and disposable income on new agey foolishness?

For the most part, I realize that analyzing actions that I know to be vital and necessary through such a cruel, hypothetical gaze is a useless game that serves no one. I just worry because I know my path is not the commonly accepted approach. It is often challenging to stand against the “do it for profit, do it for security, do it til it hurts, there’s no crying in baseball” American way, especially when family and friends seem to subscribe wholeheartedly to that maddened creed.

I suppose all we can do is dedicate ourselves to self healing that is free of selfishness.  I think this is only possible when such deep work is not focused strictly on the individual, but is dedicated to the good of the community and the good of the sacred within us all.

Rather than simply pitying or becoming exasperated by those who don’t understand the idea of slowing down, of investing in the power of deep stretches and even deeper breaths, perhaps we can think more about how to share the inner peace that we are cultivating. How can we figure out how to make pure-hearted attention to the Self an epidemic that everyone wants to catch?

The Girl Who Cried Feminism

After hearing the rave reviews, we just started watching Mad Men on DVD. After only two episodes I understand how compelling the show is, not just because of clever dialog set in a fascinating time, but because it is like watching a well orchestrated car wreck. Red meat, chain smoking, drinks before noon, these are nothing compared to the devastating treatment that every woman on the show endures. It is like watching a worst case scenario doomsday movie, but then you realize it’s not fantasy. These women could be my grandmothers and they were on the front lines of this seemingly impossible war against militant, but oh-so-gentile, sexism every day.

Discovering feminism in college was like finding out there were new shades on the color wheel. I was born in 1979 and have never withstood a fraction of what women fifty years ago met each day, but I took to the canon of modern feminism like that fish on a bicycle took to water. Exploring my identity as a woman gave me the Goddess, a sense of independence, and inspired my entire academic path. It also armed me against a few of the demeaning pitfalls that mark the experiences of most nineteen year old girls.

Almost a decade later, my feminist edge begins to dull and my sharp critique of the media become a little less strident. Removed from the sphere of activism and late night dorm room rants and now living with a man who teaches me to laugh at my own earnestness, I have shed most of my intense radicalism. Though my liberal backbone remains strong, I find that opinions intended to shock and exclude the uninitiated hold little allure now. I had to marinate in the purest feminist ideals so that I could eventually emerge a woman who could survive in a world that may not be as damning as 1960s New York, but certainly still nurtures chauvinism and enduring double standards.

I cannot be alone in this sort of evolution from blatant f-you feminism to a more internalized sense of power and presence. Two of the most important voices in my feminist education seem to have found themselves on similar path: Sinead O’Connor and Ani DiFranco.

No Man’s Woman” and “Not a Pretty Girl“? These were my anthems and I still need them sometimes to remind me of who I was, of the bits of steal at the foundation of this softer persona I now use to greet the world. Sinead has since had her own odyssey of faith and discovery and speaks to God rather than the men in her life in albums like Theology. Ani just released Red Letter Year, and though I will probably never love her newer music like I did those essential first eleven or twelve albums (yeah, she’s wicked prolific), I still respect what she is creating. The righteous rage still burns, but she looks at the world as a mother now, and as I near that phase of my life, I think I can understand how her anger smolders at a different temperature. The love of a lioness for her cub is much more evocative than rebellion for the sake of pissing someone off, and her music speaks to me in this new space

When I skip the feminist blogs I used to read avidly and instead seek sites about the soul, the environment, creativity, or the politics of race, am I abandoning the feminism that gave me freedom to engage in such topics? Or, instead, can I satisfy myself with the belief that the ideas are integral to my work and that women’s wisdom is working its magic at every turn? Can I find a way to follow my own path without worrying that I forget my sisters who redraw their feminist stripes every day so that the rest of us do not have to?

Hope In the Glare of Oncoming Headlights

Driving home from work last night I was listening to NPR, as usual. As All Things Considered drew to a close, they offered a commentary by a Steve Bouser about a turtle who perished in an ill considered bid to cross four lanes of traffic.

At the end of this momentous week, I was expecting inspiring homages to how much America had grown and how we all had been a part of history (well, at least the 52.3% who voted for Obama). Instead, here was a guy describing the cruel but banal death of a tortoise. He extended his metaphor to the madness of human “progress” that so often happens at the expense of other species and he closed with:

Turtles have been around for 200 million years, since before there were dinosaurs. And I’ll bet they’ll still be plodding on their way long after we humans have progressed to what sometimes seems a well-deserved extinction.

What? We take a bold step our of fear into a new vision of hope and we end up with the consolation of reptilian road kill and our inevitable, self-constructed doom?

Actually, there are times I agree with this rather dim view of the human endeavor. If we continue to pave over paradise and choke the air with the byproducts of our easy credit lifestyles, then a planet that refuses to support mammalian life might be just punishment.

How’s that for hope? I recognize that this intense frustration with the oblivious hedonism and narcissism of the developed world does not exactly harmonize with the spirited optimism I often share in this space. Both are vital aspects of who I am, however, and I think it is just this dissatisfaction with much of the world that drives me to write and to project whatever positive energy I can scratch together at the end of each day.

I think this NPR commentator and I are coming from a similar place, as much as I might refuse to end any of my own pieces with such a damning last sentence. He did try to save the poor little creature and is undoubtedly sharing his reflections in order to make others think about our relentless war with nature. There are enough of us who recognize that we are wreaking havoc on the globe that we must speak up and act to change it all.

Focusing on my immediate reaction to this story, I was paying little attention to the the winding road ahead of me. A black and white cat appeared, illuminated by the relentless glow of my approaching headlights. She stopped and I swear our eyes locked for a fraction of a moment. I screamed, thinking of a series of childhood cats who looked so much like her, all of whom had probably met the same fate on a dark road on a cold night.

This feline’s story would not end like the turtle’s, however. She would scamper into the bushes and my heartbeat would slow and at least one four legged creature would prove wilier than a four wheeled machine. And so I will interpret her escape as that ray of hope, that belief that there is still time to dodge the oncoming traffic of our own undoing.

And wisdom is a butterfly

And wisdom is a butterfly
And not a gloomy bird of prey
– W.B. Yeats

When I first read those lines I thought image striking and I loved the way that “wisdom” and “butterfly” sounded together, but I never felt the power of the sentiment until recently.

So many have written with a spirit of elation and relief this week. The greatest potential difficulty that many of us have discussed is the need to take responsibility ourselves, rather than leave it all in the hands of our new national leadership. Many of us are swept up in the awe and the hope, but I’ve also read gleeful revelations of GOP infighting and Palin in a towel, the Black Snob’s awesome rebuttal to the sore losers and the conservative Monday morning quarterbacks, and Christine Kane’s reminder that there is a lot of potential ugliness mixed in with all this hope.

After eight long years of feeling like the victims of a war mongering regime run by a man whose intelligence we questioned at every turn, it makes sense that we want to throw our heads back and crow about our triumph. Unfortunately, just because it is human nature to gloat a little (or a lot) and point out the flaws of the fallen opponent, that doesn’t make such impulses alright.

We have lived in a nation ruled by hawks for so long, it seems that it might be difficult to remember that we never meant to learn their tricks, their addiction to fear, their recrimination of the “other.” This is not to assume that “Democrat” or “liberal” automatically means kinder or gentler or any more wise, but I can hope that these qualities are within our grasp.

I am not just thinking about the left side of the aisle lording over the right, I’m talking about our own reactions and intentions as we move forward. How do we carry our victory and our wisdom more lightly? How do we avoid slipping into those nasty patterns we have seen from others when they have tasted success?