Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tao - the yielding up of striving conscious

Do you have the patience to wait till your mind settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?
~Tao Te Ching

"To be 'in tao' is to be in alignment with the natural workings of the universe ... through creative quietude , or wu wei. Wu wei is not idle inaction, it is a suppleness, a yielding up of striving conscious wills to the resources of a deeper self in tune with tao."
~ Gail Godwin, Heart

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Inspiration in Watts: arts, conversation, colors, kids, and community

I visited the Watts Arts Gallery, just off 92nd and Central today. I'd met and been inspired by the co-founder of the gallery, Aqeela Sherrills, at an evening of story-telling, spoken word, dance and poetry through the Men's Story Project night I attended in Berkeley a couple months ago. In that open and safe environment of men redefining and expanding the meaning of masculinity, Aqeela shared his story about growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood and losing his eldest son, shot and killed after Aqeela had spent years in conflict mediation and brokering a peace agreement between the infamous L.A. gangs the Bloods and the Crips inspired.

Rather than seek retaliation when he learned the identity of the shooter, he found himself looking for "the gift in the wound," the title of his talk and a idea and way of looking at life that had been revealed to him over the years. "In every wound there is a gift," he said. "Waging peace is a process of peaks and valleys. Conflict is a healthy part of human experience, it is unresolved conflicts that lead to violence."

Instead of retaliation, he wanted to harness his son's spirit and do something good with it. He asked the question about the killer, at 17, what could have happened in his young life to build such fear to take a life?

"I believe in the divinity of people," Aqeela told us that night. "He's a victim of a culture that sees vulnerability and humility as weakness instead of strength. The 'Reverence Movement' is the quality of attention we give to somebody."

He then challenged us to join the reverence movement, to find someone and share your secrets. "Expose your shame. Where the wounds are is where the gift is. When someone shares their secrets, behold them. Don't judge them. When someone exposes their secrets, undresses themselves to others, there's nothing left for anyone else to expose."

As I walked into the gallery space today I was met by Aqeela's gentle smile and spirit and an explosion of color. The main room is painted a brilliant orangey-yellow, a glow that shows off the vibrant colors of the artwork hung there. A huge mural was partially unfurled on the carpet below. Aqeela explained that he's in the process of hanging the mural in one of the rooms. After a tour of each room painted a different color, including a serene meditation room filled with sacred art and objects from all of the world's religious traditions, we settled into chairs in the purple room (the color of deep, sustained conversation), the walls covered with a calendar detailing the Summer Arts Academy that will take place this July for 25 kids from the Watts community, ranging from ages 11 to 14.

"Colors actually affect the physiological outlook that a person has on the world," Aqeela said as he explained the different dynamics of the colors in the gallery (yellow and reds for inspiration, blues and purples for conversation, green for laying a strong foundation). "My hope is to host conversations in this space, in which people can express the deep secrets of their personal life as a way of accessing the gift of who they are. And one of the ways of sustaining the conversation is through association with art and colors. One of the first ways in which we seen an evolution take place in the culture is through the artist, because they draw it before we can ever language it."

"We've got to define art for ourselves, so that's what we're doing here. It's like a metaphysical, esoteric sort of vortex," Aqeela said, laughing. "So people walk into this space and are like, 'Oh my god!' I'm on the phone telling people, 'So, I've got an art gallery.' Oh really? 'It's not a typical art gallery with white walls, sterile, this place is alive.'"

Aqeela reiterated what he shared that night in Berkeley, that the gift is in the wound.

"What initially brought me to the work was having the fortune of being able to mediate conversations in the neighborhood, or conflicts in the neighborhood between individuals and discovering that many of the conflicts weren’t necessarily about the incident that happened, that it was actually a trigger of a deeper wound in their personal life. For example, someone got their car taken, and maybe their father was taken from them at a young age, so they’re like ‘nobody’s ever gonna take anything else from me again,’ you know, so this is what came out of it.'

Aqeela talks often about the spirit moving through all he does and all the work that is accomplished in the community. He's clear that it's not affiliated with any one religion, but the common spirit that flows through all faith.

"This, exposing the deep secrets is about moving the etheric energy of the heart. This is kind of rooted in this idea of reverence. Etheric (energy) is an electro-magnetic force that kind of pulls the blood through the body or permeates the body. And it’s the same force that exists in the world, that keeps everything balanced. So when a person shares their secret, it gives others permission to do the same and the idea is that people will make an association with a color, they’ll make an association with a piece of art so that they can always get back to that place. Because sometimes when you expose it, you’re so shocked that it even came out!

"Like, for me, as a kid, I suppressed a lot of the horrific things that happened to me in my childhood, and promised myself that I would never share them. But when I got to college, I went through this experience in which I shared with this woman, for the first time in my life, that I was sexually abused as a kid. And I had so thoroughly suppressed it, I would hear conversations about those type of experiences before then, and I couldn’t even identify, I couldn’t relate, because I just cut that piece off of myself. But after sharing it, it was like, how do you get back there, to begin an inquiry, a deep exploration of how the experience has affected your life. ... experiences that we have isn’t who we are, they just inform who we become."

"The idea for the summer arts academy is rooted in helping kids to begin again, help to restore their imagination. Art is the modern word for ritual, and ritual is about remembering, and rediscovering those old things so we can actually bring them forth into the world. And that’s what this is about. With all the financial collapse and social collapse and decay that we’re having in the country, folks are not going to find a job and all of these different things to sustain their livelihood. So the hope is that we can support a generation, inspire a generation to imagine themselves in a different way. That we can take some of the power back that we've assigned to the piece of paper that we call money and reassign it to our relationships, so that the relationship becomes sacred, as opposed to the paper. And, do something with it!"

Besides the Summer Arts Academy, Aqeela has more plans for the space and the community: "Our plan is to start opening up at 7, 7:30 every morning, provide some coffee, hosting conversations, music, I was thinking about CNN, but we might have to expel them (laughing) but news, information, deep conversation about matters of the heart, because there’s so few places in the city where you can go and have a deep, authentic conversation."

(Top photo: Graffiti art exterior of Watts Art Gallery,
right photo: Aqeela Sherrills and David Guizar)

Oh the people you'll meet -- tales of public transportation

Giving up my car was the best way for me to stop and pay attention to my day. Here are a few of my fellow Angelenos who were part of my trek to Watts to see Aqeela Sherrills and his gorgeous Watts Arts Gallery.

Sartorial couple in jaunty hats who joined me on my bench outside Starbucks where I waited for the Central bus. He absolutely refused her help with that umbrella.

This is Elijah flashing his best "kid posing for the camera" smile, which was the only moment he stood still. His mom was filling out housing paperwork, having been homeless for a few months. She seemed a little scattered as she bummed a smoke off a passerby, hollered after Elijah as he wandered toward the crosswalk and balanced her other baby in a stroller. The baby kicked at an empty juice carton that looked like it may have just been emptied of fruit punch, thus explaining Elijah's sugar shock.

The bus, generally an uneventful ride, also forced a little closer attention on the crazy lady with the big black bag who kept setting it on the floor and then moving further and further away from it. Making no sudden movements, I shifted to the seat by the back door for easy escape.

Impressed by my bus-riding, the guys from the gallery nonetheless thought it a faster and easier ride if they dropped me at the metro, where I witnessed true bravery on the blue rail: two teachers herding 15 elementary-age kids, identified only by their short stature and bright yellow name tags, on a field trip via public transportation. Give these people a raise.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Kids hating Holden? Blasphemy!

In Sunday's New York Times, "Get a Life, Holden Caulfield" looks at whether Catcher in the Rye is no longer connecting with its audience.

"Even as Mr. Salinger, who is 90 and in ailing health, seeks to keep control of his most famous creation, there are signs that Holden may be losing his grip on the kids.

“The Catcher in the Rye,” published in 1951, is still a staple of the high school curriculum, beloved by many teachers who read and reread it in their own youth. The trouble is today’s teenagers. Teachers say young readers just don’t like Holden as much as they used to. What once seemed like courageous truth-telling now strikes many of them as “weird,” “whiny” and “immature.”

...But Holden won over the young, especially the 1960s generation who saw themselves in the disaffected preppy, according to the cultural critic Morris Dickstein. “The skepticism, the belief in the purity of the soul against the tawdry, trashy culture plays very well in the counterculture and post-counterculture generation,” said Mr. Dickstein, who teaches at the Graduate Center of the University of the City of New York. Today, “I wouldn’t say we have a more gullible youth culture, but it may be more of a joining or togetherness culture.”

The culture is also more competitive. These days, teenagers seem more interested in getting into Harvard than in flunking out of Pencey Prep. Young people, with their compulsive text-messaging and hyperactive pop culture metabolism, are more enchanted by wide-eyed, quidditch-playing Harry Potter of Hogwarts than by the smirking manager of Pencey’s fencing team (who was lame enough to lose the team’s equipment on the subway, after all). Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry — not the beautiful losers who reject it."

...Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents."

Read Get a Life, Holden Caulfied here.

Thoughts? Has Holden lost his anti-hero status in this generation? Did you find him whiny and/or immature or did you connect with his voice and quest for identity?

Happy Father's Day!

"Shoot Becky, shoot!" Dad would holler from the stands at my 4th grade basketball games. Often I didn't even have the ball, or was at the wrong basket. Didn't matter. Ever the encourager, our dad wanted us to use all the talents he and mom had given us to shine, to shoot.

Happy Father's Day to all the dads who never stop yelling for (not at) their kids.

Dad and Christina at the Oregon Coast

Dad, Rebecca and the traditional Christmas monkey

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

White silk - Naomi Shihab Nye

"Forget everything, stop doing anything, and try to rest completely. Try to pass ten thousand years in one thought! Try to be the cold ashes and the worn-out tree! Try to be a length of white silk."
~Zen Master Shih Shuang

I dreamed of white silk the night
you pointed a finger at me saying
there were caves in my history
I refused to explore. You had a clue, you said,
and would have led me down the damp passageways
swinging your lamp.
In my life, historically, that was the moment
you disappeared.

I dreamed of white silk on the last day of the year.
Crouched on my roof, I watched the neighborhood ignite,
quick bright fountains lighting up the trees.
I heard the distant yell of children,
the joy of an ending and a beginning with a name.
And I knew there were things I cared about
and things I did not care about
just as I knew the blunt sidewalks leading east and west.
The lifelong vocation of standing wherever you are
and knowing which way to walk next --
I dreamed the roof was white silk, folded carefully on a large bolt,
the center to which I would return and return.

I dreamed white silk on the day I realized
detail, that wealth we live by, is also
another method of execution.
I was carrying keys on a large silver ring --
trying to find the right key for a lock that would not budge,
with a time limit, someone needed in.

I felt myself juggling under a weight that said,
This too is the world.
For some, the only world.
I knew then why the faces of women behind counters are often
expressionless, why their eyes are coins
with only one side.

On the day I realized I would be riding
this slow pony forever

On the day my mother's voice broke
like a teacup in my hands
and I saw us all standing on tiny islands
off the coast of Alaska
drifting up into cooler regions
where the only relationship is ice and sky

On the day we talked about life after death
and I said, If there is none
that doesn't change anything

In a small town, in a general store,
I saw a roll of white silk sleeping high on a shelf.
Storekeeper counting beans,
told me if I wanted anything, better get it,
he was closing out in auction the coming week.
I unrolled the silk. Smooth brown lines at every crease.
In the corner, his wife darned slips and winked at me.
"Don't believe it, honey.
You want anything -- you take your time."

~Naomi Shihab Nye

(Photo from

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Can't I find an oracle in my coffee cup? Why I'll never wander in the desert

In Orion's "Oracle in the Desert," Craig Childs describes how friend and fellow desert-wanderer Dirk decides there is a route in the midst of wilderness:

"Around us, pale, bare cliffs tower one above the next. Canyons plunge into inescapable, winter-cold depths. Dirk and I have been walking for several days through this land, an untrailed, remote quarter of the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona. This mode of travel has been our mutual pastime, wandering for weeks or months on end into the wilderness, seeing what might become of us.

"We’re balanced on a platform of rock, geologic scaffolding, not a single living thing visible around us, no shrub or sprig of grass. The land looks elemental, the very bones of the Earth.

"Dirk pushes his fingertips into parched blowsand and unearths a bighorn sheep dropping. The small, oval scat is exactly what he was looking for. It means there is a passage, a way through.

“Somebody’s been here,” Dirk says. Bighorn sheep navigate this territory, traveling finger-width ledges, leaping chasms. Their habitat, known as escape terrain, is convoluted country where predators cannot reach. The only hitch is you have to learn to move like an acrobat, every sense elevated at every step."

Somebody has NOT been there. Bighorn sheep have been there. Perhaps just the one, who literally pooped out before falling off the rock. The mindset that the feces of an animal that has evolved to gracefully leap over chasms is a sign to "go on" is not one that reassures me to strap on a pack and head to the uninhabited desert.

Yet a part of me has always been drawn to the desert, to the austerity, to seeing who I might be, stripped of all that comforts me (green hills, running water, Kings Road coffee).

"...traveling without maps or compasses, traversing nameless mazes to see what we can do with our bare hands and some rope. We sleep among red stone monoliths, hemmed in by a sky full of winter stars. Morning comes slowly, constellations fading into the blue." ...

"...Most people think you go to the wilderness to flee something. But in the desert there is nowhere to hide. Your body stands on smooth, naked domes of rock. Even in the deepest shadows of canyons you are exposed, every move a question and an answer." (Craig Childs)

In Desert Solataire, one of my favorite books, Edward Abbey writes, "Like certain aspects of this music, the desert is also a-tonal, cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time - another paradox - both agonized and deeply still.

"Like death? Perhaps. And perhaps that is why life nowhere appears so brave, so bright, so full of oracle and miracle as in the desert."

Until I can trust the oracle of sheep poo, I'll have to wander vicariously through Orion, Abbey and other desert writers.

(Photo by Craig Childs)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Oh Canada ... and health care reform

In "This Time, We Won't Scare," New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof debunks some of the scaremongering that's going on surrounding the U.S. need for health care reform.

"No doubt there are some genuine horror stories in Canada, as there are here in the United States.

But the bottom line is that America’s health care system spends nearly twice as much per person as Canada’s (building the wealth of hospital tycoons like Mr. Scott). Yet our infant mortality rate is 40 percent higher than Canada’s, and American mothers are 57 percent more likely to die in childbirth than Canadian ones."

Read the full column here.

And a related story from the L.A. Times about health care, childbirth and the costs, risks and high number of c-sections in the U.S.

"The cesarean rate in the U.S. is higher than in most other developed nations. And in spite of a standing government goal of reducing such deliveries, the U.S. has set a new record every year for more than a decade.

The problem, experts say, is that the cesarean -- delivery via uterine incision -- exposes a woman to the risk of infection, blood clots and other serious problems. Cesareans also have been shown to increase premature births and the need for intensive care for newborns. Even without such complications, cesareans result in longer hospital stays.

Inducing childbirth -- bringing on or hastening labor with the drug oxytocin -- also is on the rise and is another source of growing concern. Experts say miscalculations often result in the delivery of infants who are too young to breathe on their own. Induction, studies show, also raises the risk of complications that lead to cesareans.

Despite all this intervention -- and, many believe, because of it -- childbirth in the U.S. doesn't measure up. The U.S. lags behind other developed nations on key performance indicators including infant mortality and birth weight."

~Lisa Girion

Full story at the L.A. Times.

I wish for: a weekend away ... with this bag

Today I spent some time de-cluttering my desk / room, to create a more sacred and zen space. I love the clean, open feel of a spare room.

I have so much and really don't need anything, but if I were to ask Santa for a gift, I think it might be a bag from Rising Tide Fair Trade. They make me dream of weekends away (and envision myself a light packer who could ever take just a weekend bag).

From the website: The Kantha artisans that create rising tide fair trade bags work collectively in a fair trade cooperative through which members earn an income to support their families.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Monday night high: Room 5

After almost a year away, I remembered why I love Room 5 on Monday nights -- Jay Nash hosts singer/songwriter in the round, there are random musicians in the audience who jump onstage to play, and the talent is achingly good and beautiful.

High: Introducing my friend Katie to Monday nights at Room 5.

Low: Learning Jay Nash is married. Sigh.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Weekend fun: C's bachelorette / lingerie party

Malo, mojitos, and lingerie. Blushing, not from the bride, but the soon-to-be sister-in-law, as most lingerie is really for the groom. Lovely to see most of Caroline's friends in one place; a preview of the wedding fun to come!

Sister-in-law (to be) hiding in horror.

Mmmm... Malo mojito.

I love the faded '70s look of this shot of Jen, but didn't plan for it. My camera died that night -- recommendations for an affordable digital? I'd love to get an SLR ... but don't think it's in my budget.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

You've been Dietered: losing your airplane comfort and finding the power of giving

"Would the owner of the black briefcase left beneath seat 34B please return and claim your carry-on," the pleasant disembodied voice of a Dutch KLM flight attendant echoed across the three rows of the 747.

Passengers continued to settle into their seats, checking seatbelts, leafing through the Dutch painters edition of the KLM magazine.

Minutes later: "We have found a business card in the outside pocket of the black briefcase left at seat 34B. Would Dieter ______ please ring the bell where you are now seated and claim your carry-on." The attendant's tones were no longer dulcet.

Passengers looked uncomfortably about the plane, fingering their seat belts. Would we have to leave the plane to deal with a potential terrorist threat of an abandoned brief case? Where was Dieter?

"Dieter ______, return to 34B immediately to claim your carry-on, or we will be forced to disembark."

A few minutes later, Dieter had indeed been found, looking for a better seat than 34B, and for his trouble, was publicly berated by the frustrated flight attendant. Dieter's new seat was next to our friend and documentary cinematographer Brian, who had hoped for that empty seat to stretch a bit on the flight from Amsterdam to Ethiopia.

No such luck. He'd been Dietered.

Dieter was a talker, and very interested in Brian's purpose for flying to Addis Ababa. When Dieter heard that the documentary was to raise awareness to the life of kids living on the streets of the slums and the hope L.I.A. offers them, he grew animated and shared recent opportunities he'd had to serve the less fortunate. His daughter had taken him to a retirement home, where they played bingo with the elderly and lonely. He was excited to share that with each opportunity to give, he'd found more energy and felt better in general, and encouraged Brian in all the work he was to do in Ethiopia.

Dieter's realization that to give to and serve others and a greater purpose is good not only for the community, but for one's personal health has been the subject of medical and social studies. In "The Healing Power of Compassion," Dr. Patricia's Fitzgerald's interview with actress Tasia Valenza, she explores the health benefits of altruistic behavior.

"'It is better to give than to receive' is a phrase that has become so commonplace, it's easy to take the meaning lightly. Many of us have felt that wonderful feeling that accompanies making someone's day a little brighter. Have we really thought about how powerful giving can be -- not just to the recipients but to the giver as well?

Whether it is part of a profession, volunteer work, or being a caregiver to a family member, being of service can have a significant effect on one's emotional and spiritual health. People just seem so much happier when they are part of something greater than themselves.

The healing effects of compassion and altruism have been subjects of ongoing research. Numerous studies suggest that helping others may influence a person's physical as well as mental health."
(Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, The Huffington Post)

In "No Future Without Forgiveness" and in an interview with Beliefnet, Desmond Tutu references the concept of interdependence in one word, "ubuntu," which takes a whole paragraph of English to explain:

"Ubuntu is a concept that we have in our Bantu languages at home. Ubuntu is the essence of being a person. It means that we are people through other people. We cannot be fully human alone. We are made for interdependence, we are made for family. When you have ubuntu, you embrace others. You are generous, compassionate. If the world had more ubuntu, we would not have war. We would not have this huge gap between the rich and the poor. You are rich so that you can make up what is lacking for others. You are powerful so that you can help the weak, just as a mother or father helps their children. This is God's dream."

Perhaps Dieter's enthusiasm for giving of his time can override his reputation of flight-interrupter, and we can all look forward to being "Dietered" in the future.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Ethiopia in photos

I love airports - my tendency to ask strangers about their lives and their recent purchases validated by a boarding pass.  Leaving Ethiopia, a man returning from the Congo to Belgium asked what I had seen of Ethiopia.  When I explained we had stayed in Addis Ababa with a brief trip to Debre Birhan, he told me I missed seeing the best of Ethiopia, the Blue Nile.  Scott, an American in Amsterdam, had just returned from safari in Kenya and couldn't believe I'd stayed in the city the whole time.  

As we drove the four hours from Addis to Debre Birhan through farming villages, we passed kids shepherding sheep and donkeys, women sitting outside a small dairy surrounded by old-fashioned milk jugs, horse-drawn carts and sweeping African vistas dotted with trees, livestock and thatched huts.  It was a beautiful break from the slums of the city where my senses were overwhelmed with the mingling smells of humanity in a place built too quickly with no planning: coffee roasting and brewing mixed with both human and animal sweat and excrement.  Little sticky hands reached out for money I couldn't give them, but more gently to touch hands and say "selam," (peace) the daily greeting.  In both the city and the countryside I saw smiles, hope and desperation.  I met girl prostitutes who were trying to feed themselves and often a baby, who were happy to speak to the ferengis (white foreigners) because they had not one person who cared to ask what life is like for them.

I may not have seen all that Ethiopia has to offer, but I did see more beauty in humanity than I could handle.  

I hope you enjoy the photos -- I'll be posting more detailed stories in days to come.