Sunday, December 04, 2011

Growing up Bookish: What I learned from Harriet, Claudia, Mary and more

“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” — Anne Lamott

I'm helping my mother clean out her attics, an emotional process as she prepares to move out of her house of over 20 years, clearing out years of memories, selling antiques that won't fit into her new, down-sized life, and giving away books.  So. Many. Books.

We found a reading report from my second grade teacher, the beloved Nan Stewart, in which she had written that she didn't worry about assigning me reading for the summer break, as "Rebecca loves to read."  Both my parents are story-tellers, and raised us as readers.  Saturdays and summer days were spent on the floor at the Eugene public library, surrounded by stacks and the smell of books. I remember my mom's reasoning about why I shouldn't read Sweet Valley High books:  not because they were trashy or taught poor morals for a pre-teen girl, but that they weren't well-written.

Cleaning out the attic, opening boxes and boxes of storybooks and novels, covers tattered from reading over and over again, my mom remembered how I revered books as a little girl, how I'd barely crack the covers so as not to break the spine, how upset I got if my sister borrowed one and dogeared a page to save her place. I moved on from that quickly, and now my love of favorite books shows in how dogeared and scribbled upon they are.

Looking at my childhood collection, story is how I learned to understand the world. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg) introduced me to adventure and investigation, Dancing Shoes and Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfield) still makes me wish I hadn't quit ballet class and had grown into a dancer, albeit a tall dancer.  Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh) inspired me to take notes on life all around me, that everything and everyone has a story, and to find connections in the unexpected.  The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), its battered, broken spine falling open to page 130, reminding me, in our "we live in public" lives of Facebook, Twitter and blogging, how lovely it is to discover and keep a secret, and perhaps share it with just one or two trusted friends.

"They have to please me," he said. "I will make them take me there and I will let you go, too."

Mary's hands clutched each other. Everything would be spoiled — everything! Dickon would never come back. She would never again feel like a missel thrush with a safe-hidden nest.

"Oh, don't—don't—don't—don't do that!" she cried out.

He stared as if he thought she had gone crazy!

"Why?" he exclaimed. "You said you wanted to see it."

"I do," she answered with almost a sob in her throat, "but if you make them open the door and take you in like that it will never be a secret again."

He leaned still farther forward.

"A secret," he said. "What do you mean? Tell me."

Mary's words almost tumbled over one another.

"You see—you see," she panted, "if no one knows but ourselves—if there was a door, hidden somewhere under the ivy—if there was—and we could find it; and if we could slip through it together and shut it behind us, an dno one knew any one was inside and we called it our garden and pretended that—that we were missel thrushes and it was our nest, and if we played there almost every day and dug and planted seeds and made it all come alive—"

"...If the garden was a secret and we could get into it we could watch the things grow bigger every day, and see how many roses are alive. Don't you see? Oh, don't you see how much nicer it would be if it was a secret?" 

— The Secret Garden

“I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.” — L.M. Montgomery

Read more quotes from writers on the love of reading at Flavorpill.

Friday, November 18, 2011

World Toilet Day: Peace Market Latrines Under Construction!

Latrine at the Peace Market, prior to construction.
What? You didn't know that November 19th is World Toilet Day? I didn't either, until I read Amnesty International's post about "giving a crap for human rights," and immediately thought of Robin Wright and Amani Matabaro. Neither one who approved my using his/her name in conjunction with "crap," but both have given time and money toward making sure the women, men and children who use the Peace Market have a safe and sanitary place to ... well, poop.

It's an unsavory subject, but one that is critical to health and human rights. I never thought I'd be so passionate about the toilet, but lately I can't forget the fact that 2.6 billion people don't have access to basic sanitation. Next time you flush, consider that open defecation leads to outbreaks of cholera, which is a horrifying threat to the lives of children, especially in eastern Congo, where 1 in 4 children who die before their fifth birthday in lose their lives to something entirely preventable – cholera and acute diarrhea.

Check out our Action Kivu blog to learn how important these latrines are, from the people who manage the Peace Market.

Latrines under construction

Cate and I are excited to visit the Peace Market in person later this month to see the completed project, and share more stories with you!

In the meantime, you can support human rights on World Toilet Day by supporting the Water for the World Act.  Take ACTION and sign Amnesty International's petition today

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Six Feet Under: Pay Attention

Everybody dies.  Until you really face the truth of your own mortality, you can't really start to live. ~ Alan Ball, Creator, Six Feet Under.

As Claire embarks on a journey and says her goodbyes, she takes a photo of her family. Nate whispers over her shoulder: "You can't take a picture of this, it's already gone."

If you haven't watched the series from season 1, episode 1, stop NOW, go to Netflix and start watching.  Forewarned about the power of the finale. I watched it alone, so as not to scare my roommate. Through my sobbing and Sia, all I could think was "It goes SO fast."  Be present, and pay attention.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bus Riding Revelation: Suffering and Chick-Fil-A

I often avoid eye contact, waiting for the bus on Sunset.  Avoid direct, conversation-starting contact with the too-crazy street folk, from the un-medicated schizophrenics to the tourists from Topeka who see stars everywhere they look. Time passes and the bus is minute-by-minute later than its ETA, and I suddenly awake to the fact that I'm sick of waiting, sick of smelling Chick-Fil-A and unable to gauge the time it would take to order and run back across the street to my stop, all the while stuffing guilty, anti-gay marriage waffle fries in my mouth.  The driver of the 8:08 obviously has it in for me, ruining my night.

And in that moment, surrounded by the greasy air of the chicken joint and the silt of car exhaust, I wake up, and remembered what I'd read that morning.  What I had had the time to read, precisely because I take the sometimes-a-few-minutes-late-because-of-traffic bus.  "Love and suffering are a part of most human lives. Without doubt, they are the primary spiritual teachers more than any Bible, church, minister, sacrament, or theologian," writes Richard Rohr in The Naked Now.  He continues about love ... and notes that "When you are inside of great love and great suffering, you have a much stronger possibility of surrendering your ego controls and opening up to the whole field of life."

You may not see waiting for a late bus as "great suffering," but when you can't. reach. the. waffle. fries, believe me, IT IS.  Rohr backs me up: "Suffering opens you in a different way.  Here, things happen against your will — which is what makes it suffering. And over time, you can learn to give up your defended state, again because you have no choice. The situation is what it is," [no bus, no waffle fries] "although we will invariably go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining," [paying the homeless guy to go buy my fries for an extra dollar and direct eye contact] "resignation, and (hopefully) on to acceptance. ... You can see why we must have a proper attitude toward suffering, because many things every day leave us out of control — even if just a long stoplight."

"Suffering... can lead you in either of two directions: It can make you very bitter and close you down, or it can make you wise, compassionate, and utterly open, either because your heart has been softened, or perhaps because suffering makes you feel like you have nothing more to lose."

Thankfully, this moment of suffering shook me out of my dark night of the ego and reminded me, especially as the bus pulled up, that I am thankful. For a cheap ride home, for the money saved on gas and my lighter carbon footprint that will go to a 4$ bottle of Trader Joe's wine (I'm particularly loving Green Fin California 2010 Red Table Wine, made with organic grapes) and for the people I have the chance to help and talk to and things I get to see by riding public transportation. I directed a lovely couple from Brazil where to get off for the Whiskey a Go-Go, only mis-directing them by one stop, I watched a baker in her white coat carefully disembark the train car bearing a beautiful white cake decorated with elegant, thin silver candles, and a women transporting boxes and bags of floral arrangements and roses in fall colors.

"Nondual thinking is a way of seeing that refuses to eliminate the negative, the problematic, the threatening parts of everything. ... [It] clarifies and sharpens your rational mind and increases your ability to see truthfully because your biases and fears are out of the way." (Rohr)

Pretty much sums up taking public transportation.

(Quotes from "The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See" by Richard Rohr, pp 122-125, 131. )

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday: the homeless and the harpist

Every day, for my current casting job, I read or hear stories of people on the verge — the verge of losing a home, losing a job, fear of losing their friends and family if they become homeless or have to move out of state for work. Though I'm collecting these stories for a good cause, so families might receive expert advice and become part of an online community in which strangers become neighbors and take up the social responsibility of caring for each other, it still wears on my soul.

So this morning, walking up to begin another day of disseminating distressing stories, I stopped to make sure a woman curled on the sidewalk was okay. A man was leaning over her, and as I approached he assured me the other man, sitting in his car at the curb, had called the paramedics. She was perched on that ledge, he told me, and then just fell over. The woman, dressed in dirty, street-stained clothes, was homeless and off her meds, though had obviously just been self-medicating with something. The man who had called 9-1-1 pulled away, and my new friend and I stood near the woman, reassuring her that the paramedics were on their way. She cradled herself, mumbling jibberish and crying, and I felt tears well up in my eyes.

It pushed me over my emotional edge. Too much — too much suffering, helplessness, self-medicating. But what also made me want to sob was seeing two strangers stop their day to help a woman who had likely done this to herself. I heard no words of judgment, just sympathy.

After another day of stories of foreclosure and loss of health insurance, I heard the sound of a harpist. Had I been in a terrible train accident? Was this heaven? It was Hollywood & Highland, and exiting the Metro, I heard Philip King playing to a small crowd waiting for the red line.

The moment of music and the harpist's gorgeous smile reminded me of the small beautiful things in life and, feeling a little more connected to them, I walked down to Sunset where I boarded my bus with a man with no hands, who carted about an old computer tower between his two stubs just above where his wrists should have been. His dirty dreadlocks covered his face as he bent forward to eat out of a take-out container of food he'd just scavenged from a fast-food joint near the bus stop. He, too, was off necessary meds, and muttered the whole drive west, as other passengers ignored him, looked away from his dirty arms that ended abruptly, exited the bus as if he wasn't there.

The last two passengers heading west, we rode the bus the rest of the way as he muttered unintelligible streams of consciousness and I read Richard Rohr's words about being fully present, how the kingdom of God is not the fuzzy future where harps are played by angels with long, beautiful dark hair, but a state of consciousness of being in the NOW. Looking at the empty bus and the homeless, crazy man, I wondered if he were a veteran, and if this was really the kingdom of God.

"The kingdom of God is the naked now — the world without human kingdoms, ethnic communities, national boundaries, or social identifications. That is about as subversive and universalist as you can get. But don't think about that too much; it will surely change your politics and your pocketbook."

Rohr continues to write about prayer as "resonance." "All you can really do in the spiritual life is get tuned to receive the always present message. ... Prayer is not an attempt to change God's mind about us or about events. ... It is primarily about changing our mind so that things like infinity, mystery and forgiveness can resound within us." (Richard Rohr, The Naked Now - Learning to See as the Mystics See)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Occupy L.A. - Talking About a Revolution

Pete's 77 years old, just diagnosed with emphysema.  He hasn't smoked for eight years, but the 50 prior to that is what did him in.  It's a shame too, since as a activist, he goes to all the rallies and volunteers at various Los Angeles non-profits.  His energy only about 30% what it once was, with all the meds he's on, he was still at the protest to "Occupy L.A.," smiling with toothless happiness as he sat next to me at City Hall, talking about revolution.

Some one with a camera asked me, do I think this will change anything, he told me, taking a swig from his bottle of water and surveying the crowd of post-march people who had taken over the lawns and sidewalks of L.A.'s City Hall.  He paused and we both listened to the sound of a band playing, drums being beat, kids giggling and playing games, an occasional chant rising up.

Even if nothing changes, said Pete, we had a good time, right?  We came, we met people, we listened to music and we talked.  I nodded.  But, Pete continued, I believe it is already changing.  From the middle east to New York to here, a spark has been ignited, and it only takes a spark to fan that flame.

Photos include "Old and Still Idealistic" Donna with her daughter, the "Greed Kills / End Wars" guy pausing for a protest hotdog, "I Won't Believe Corporations are People until Texas Executes One," ladies with feather headdresses (I don't know what it is, but I like it), my friends in marching mode Sean & Robby, and the 99 to represent the rest of us, the 99% whose voices should count, whose votes should make a difference.

Someone with a camera talked to me too.  A man who identified himself as being with NBC's Nightly News asked me why I was there, and the first thing that came to mind, the most basic, simple response was, "I had to show up.  To make my voice heard.  It's time."

But, as Sean coined the word, I'm a bit of a slacktivist.  After marching in the sun, I bailed at 1:30, just when the day's activities were getting going. If you want to head down to City Hall, there's live music at 4pm, an open forum for the occupiers at 4:30, dinner delivered from Food Not Bombs at 5:30, a general assembly at 7:30, and at 9:30, the evening event begins.  Power to the people!

Thanks to Eric, who reminded me of Tracy Chapman's lyrics: "Talkin' Bout A Revolution"

Don't you know you're talking about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper
Don't you know they're talking about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper

While they're standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion

Don't you know you're talking about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper

Poor people are gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people are gonna rise up
And take what's theirs

Don't you know you better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run
Oh I said you better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run

Finally the tables are starting to turn
Talking about a revolution
Finally the tables are starting to turn
Talking about a revolution oh no
Talking about a revolution oh no

While they're standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion

Don't you know you're talking about a revolution
It sounds like a whisper

And finally the tables are starting to turn
Talking about a revolution
Finally the tables are starting to turn
Talking about a revolution oh no
Talking about a revolution oh no
Talking about a revolution oh no

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Reuniting with the Secret Self: Lessons from Yoga (and Spock)

"Yoga" is usually translated "union," but, Steven reminded us at YogaGlo last night, it's more a reunion, reuniting with something that is always there.  He asked us to think of it like our breath.  Breathing is always there, whether we are conscious of it or not, but we reunite with that presence when we remember to be conscious of our breath.  And, bringing our hands together in the prayer position at our heart center, we reunite light and dark, male and female, our conscious and unconscious selves.

It brought to mind the idea of searching for your other half, an idea that conceptual artist Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. Spock) explored in his photography exhibit Secret Selves.  "According to Greek mythology, humans were once four legged and four armed. When they became too arrogant and powerful Zeus split them in two. Since then mankind is in constant search for our other half in order to feel complete." (R. Michelson Galleries)

Sitting in the overflow room of a packed event at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, we watched a short film that went behind the scenes of Nimoy's shoot. We watched him set up shop in Northhampton, Mass, where he invited everyday people to arrive wearing something (or often, nothing) that gave a glimpse into a part of their life that may not be evident to all, even to oneself. A secret self.

Many were whimsical and lovely, such as Paul, a writer whose "inner self is a classical violinist, though I am not classical and I don’t play an instrument," or a man who wanted to retire as a mad scientist and brought along a bag of his crazy creations.

James — Newspaper Arts Editor
I plan to retire into a career as a mad scientist. I believe it is only madness of purpose that will serve me well.

Many were poignant and empowering.  Hands in prayer position at the heart, bringing together light and dark.

Dawn — former Junior League President
I was physically, emotionally and psychologically abused…I was outed by my husband…
I am a fighter — been stripped bare but I keep on swinging.

Hands in prayer position at the heart, bringing together male and female.

"I like being a girl…no one knows I am a woman, let alone a lesbian. My beard is natural, there is no imbalance." ~ Aimee
Aimee talked to Nimoy about how a beard is a cultural indicator, defining one's sexuality.  Most women pluck unwanted hair, and her beard is completely natural, she said, she doesn't have a hormonal imbalance.  Because she's overweight, most people don't notice her double Ds. She doesn't interact much with people at work, she usually gets jobs "in the back," washing dishes, so they assume she's a man.

"We're not here to judge, we're here to learn and observe," Nimoy explained when he discussed his process. Another great lesson of yoga practice and most great spiritual teachers.

What is your secret self?  my friend asked me as we left. I'm still not sure. I don't know how I would have arrived to meet with Nimoy, what I would wear, what I would reveal. Maybe I'm afraid of the dark, what / who might be lurking there.  But in yoga (union), as I sit and come back to awareness of body and breath, reuniting with what IS, joining my hands to symbolize bringing together the yin and the yang, I feel a little more centered, and more open to whatever that secret self might be.

(Photos from R. Michelson Galleries - see more from the series here.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Everyone Poops: Take Action to Solve the World's Toilet Crisis

The john, the loo, the WC, the great white throne — for as many loving nicknames with which we've labeled the toilet, we likely take ours for granted.  Yet, in this day and age of technology and TOTO toilets with heated seats, built-in bidets and push-button sounds to drown out the noise of nature, more than 2.6 billion people, approximately 40% of the world's population, don't have access to the most basic toilet. 

This isn't just a problem for tourist boards trying to turn travelers' gaze from locals pooping in ponds, streams and rivers, this is life and death.  "As a result (of open defecation), more than 2 million people — including 1.5 million children — die from complications of chronic diarrhea." (World's Toilet Crisis, Vanguard)

It isn't a sexy subject or one for the dinner table, but as the children's book teaches us, "Everyone Poops." But not everyone has access to or the education to understand the dire importance of a clean latrine.  That's why it's crucial that we raise funds to build a latrine in the DRC this month. 

This isn't just any latrine.  This would fill a gaping, 30 foot hole that was dug in eastern Congo, dug to build the Peace Market, a dream of Amani Mataboro's to provide a place of commerce and community near the border, where Congolese and Rwandans could come together and work alongside each other towards peace and  a stronger, healthier economy. 

The latrine will serve this area of 26 villages and up to 42,000 people. It also benefits villages from the Walungu territory, as well as some communities on the Rwandan side of the Ruzizi river. With $4,500 USD, the latrine can be up and running, and, if we raise $9,000, it can be built as an environmentally sustainable resource of renewable energy - methane biogas

"The market is the best site for a sanitary latrine, since it is a focal point for the local economy. Without action, it could become the breeding ground for a cholera epidemic, but now it will be a success case for demonstrating healthy practices," says Amani Mataboro, Executive Director of Action Kivu's partner, Action pour le Bien- être de la Femme et de l'Enfant au Kivu (ABFEK).

"There is an urgency to this action. Because of climate change, we are seeing signs of the rainy season starting sooner than ever before. If we do not act now, people will die, starting with children and the elderly. If we work together, we can prevent these deaths and build a healthier community."

1 in 4 children who die before their fifth birthday in Eastern Congo die of something entirely preventable: cholera and acute diarrhea.  Help us change that with a donation to a clean latrine and health education today.  Learn more here

To learn more about the World's Toilet Crisis, watch the Vanguard video.  Absolutely disgusting at times (I made the mistake of watching right before breakfast), it's also informative and inspirational, as you watch communities take control of their health and well-being.  

(Photos: Everyone Poops,, latrine being dug at the Peace Market, newly built Peace Market, Opening Day Celebration)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Enraged & Engaged: Does Anybody Hear Me?

Enraged and engaged.  That's how I woke up yesterday morning.  A bit exhausted after weeping off and on for five hours watching the Democracy Now coverage of the Troy Davis vigil outside the prison.  But despite a night of tossing and turning, a sense of urgency woke me before my alarm. Puffy-eyed, enraged and engaged.

A born peace-keeper / people-pleaser, I've recently been able to accept my own anger. My therapist told me to, and I want to make her happy. But she also taught me that anger is only healthy as a motivating factor that leads towards positive change.  So as not to become the angry-girl, I signed the Amnesty International petition "Not in My Name," voicing my continued support to partner with them to abolish the death penalty.  I woke up ready to engage, and armed with Amnesty's guidance, I e-mailed their representatives from the state of California to learn what I can do to act on my outrage.  Who's with me?

Here's what we can do in California; e-mail YOUR state rep to find out how to act locally, or move here!  We can hang out, get fro-yo and go door-to-door together, getting autographs to put the issue on the ballot.

From Amnesty International, USA:  In California, we are working now on repealing the death penalty in 2012. California has the largest death row in the country, with over 700 people. We can really make a difference and push for abolition in our state. To those of you who want to do more, there are many ways.
You can learn more about the SAFE CALIFORNIA campaign here.

You can VOLUNTEER for the SAFE CALIFORNIA campaign here.

You can learn more about Amnesty's Death Penalty Abolition work here.

Finally, this year's Western Regional Conference for Amnesty will be in Los Angeles from November 4th to 6th. We will have workshops on the death penalty and a variety of human rights issues. It's also a great was to connect with others involved in the cause. If you live in LA and are an Amnesty member it's only $25, if you're a student it's $15.  

They also have a great fact sheet that will give you some talking points and includes some gems such as:

  • In 2008, 93% of all known executions took place in five countries China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the USA.
  • The death penalty is racially biased. Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (77%) have been executed for killing white victims, even though AfricanAmericans make up about half of all homicide victims.
  • The death penalty claims innocent lives. Since 1973, 138 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to evidence of their wrongful conviction. In this same time period, more than 1,000 people have been executed.
  • The death penalty is not a deterrent. FBI data shows that all 14 states without capital punishment in 2008 had homicide rates at or below the national rate.

As I processed my emotions from the night Troy Davis was killed, a lot of my outrage stemmed from a feeling of helplessness, not being heard. It felt like millions of people were surrounding the grounds that housed the death chamber, their pleas and screams to save someone's life not heard through some sound-proof barrier of bureaucracy. It reflects one instant that makes up the whole of living in a democracy but feeling that elected leaders are not listening, that I don't have a voice here. I'm exhausted from screaming into the wind, from preaching to the choirs of like-minded friends at dinner parties and BBQs. I'm hoping this action, partnering with Amnesty and others fighting the death penalty in California, being very specific about educating voters, will finally break through that sound barrier and allow our voices to be heard.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I am Troy Davis

I started watching the Democracy Now! live feed from the Georgia prison at 3pm / 6pm EST, too late to contact the parole board, the local judge or the governor's office to voice my opposition one. last. time. 1 hour before they killed Troy Davis, and all the government offices were closed for the day.  How could office hours be a part of state-sanctioned homicide?  How can something like this be so neat and tidy with hours of operation, how could so many agencies ignore millions of people asking for a stay of execution, individual cries for justice and life from around the country and the globe?

Then, already in tears as the 7 o'clock deadline approached and passed, I took a breath hearing a cry of relief from the crowd, and then waited in confusion as the reporters tried to clarify what seemed to be a stay of execution.  I called out to my roommate to come watch.  I felt such relief, but also that OF COURSE they would grant a stay, they couldn't kill someone for a case that had so much doubt involved in it, where seven of the nine eye-witnesses recanted, where there was no physical evidence, where one juror stated that if she'd known then what she knows now, she would never have given a guilty verdict, and Troy Davis would not be on death row.  As someone stated later to Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, "Troy Davis doesn't need to prove he is innocent, the state of Georgia needs to prove he is guilty."

Oh right — innocent until proven guilty — the basis of our judicial system.  But after watching so much Law & Order and being programmed by our social system, how often do we really operate on that high moral ground?  Rarely, which is why a justice system that embraces the death penalty is flawed.  It is run by humans, with preconceptions, prejudice and emotion.  There is too much room for error, but there is NO room repairing that error after the lethal injection has been given.

My brain / soul / heart relief that of course a stay was going to happen, as it was the only rational response, was quickly ridiculed as idealistic when the crowd was informed that there was simply a reprieve, not a stay.  Davis would be allowed to breathe, his heart to beat, while the Supreme Court of the United States reviewed his final appeal.  So the torture continued, as Troy and his family waited hours for the decision to come down, one sentence from the Supreme Court that said they had denied the stay. 

How could I hope for rational thought when part of the state-sponsored killing is a suicide watch, to make sure the prisoner doesn't end his own life, ensuring the state gets to play god. When part of the process is a general physical, to make sure the prisoner is healthy enough to kill. Healthy enough. To kill.

Sadly, I'm not surprised, many of my friends commented on Facebook.

I was surprised.  Surprised to confirm that I really am an idealist / optimist, and believed that rational thought and the fear of killing a potentially innocent man would win the day. That the pride and ego of the state wouldn't be so large as to ignore the pleas of the people.  But, as Troy Davis himself shared in his statements, "This fight to end the death penalty is not won or lost through me but through our strength to move forward and save every innocent person in captivity around the globe. We need to dismantle this Unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country."

I needed this wake-up call. To the broken system that plays into our race and class problems, to the need to fight for reform, for reconciliation, forgiveness and real justice. I am Troy Davis. Our government killed him, but his spirit must live on in us as we put an end to this grotesque, inhuman act. Visit Amnesty International to sign a pledge to abolish the death penalty, that you do not want anyone killed in your name. And then learn how to take action, to contact and partner with organizations in your area who are fighting for the lives of others.

(from 1DeadlyNation)

(From road2justice)   

Sunday, September 11, 2011

City of Angels: Riding the Bus with Hollywood Jesus

Driving with my best friend, we waited to turn left to let a man run past us to catch the bus, his black cape flapping about his thigh-high boots. I LOVE that these are your people, she said, as we turned and watched him safely board the bus. Your bus people.

Last night was a beauty of a bus-ride, if like me, you're looking forward to the crazy. Waiting in Hollywood at Sunset and Vine, I stood near the curb, my eye on the traffic, near the bus sign but a few feet from the covered bus bench, giving space to the homeless man sleeping there. A few minutes later, he awoke, walked outside the lean-to, looked at me a few times, turned his back on me and proceeded to piss on the corner of the bus stand, his urine streaming down the sidewalk to the gutter.

My first thought? Well, where else is this guy gonna pee? Not like any of the bars on the block are going to let him use their restroom. My second thought? The Japanese TOTALLY know what they're doing when they remove their shoes before entering a room. You never know what you're walking on, but I can tell you, in L.A., it ain't sunshine.

Fully roused from relieving himself, he walked back behind the bus partition, and started hollering, ranting and raving at passersby, drivers, and the world in general.

It was getting closer to midnight, and our bus was late. A blonde Russian girl in her 20s arrived, asked me how long I'd been waiting, and staked out a spot further from the stop. A safe distance. An older woman with a peaceful, round, expressionless face said something about traffic being bad on a Saturday night.

The man's rant died down for a minute, and there was just the sound of tires turning and engines revving as people gunned through the yellow lights, hurriedly turned left on reds, and generally obeyed the laws of the land. Suddenly the man stepped out from the covered bench, a white sheet tied around his neck flowing over a bulky backpack, and looked me straight in the eye.

You think I don't have a car? he asked me. Of course I got a car, first thing I got, so my girlfriend wouldn't stand alone at a bus stop, getting hit on by strangers. Don't want her taking a taxi, either. I've got guns, he nodded toward the building at our backs, indicating his cache was kept in the newly-abandoned ghost-town of the Border's Bookstore behind us. AK-47s, 9mm, ... he proceeded with a laundry list of firearms, pretty much everything but a musket.

I wasn't sure my best move. If I walked away, would he follow, angry? If I ignored him, would be come closer, forcing me to look at him, to really see him?

What is it like, to be so out of control, so beyond the boundaries of civilized society, yet completely unseen? I don't know if, off his meds as he obviously was, he ever thought about that, but I all I could wonder was how invisible he must feel, people constantly averting their gaze, putting greater space between them and his odor, his rants, his very being.

I seemed to have found the right balance, making eye contact briefly, every few sentences, standing my ground. His rant at an end, he paused, looked me in the eye, and asked in a small voice, But I'm a good boy, aren't I?

He sounded like a child, confused, and it crushed me a little to realize he is someone's son. I wonder what his story is, and who might still know it.

Our bus having finally arrived, I sat by myself near the front, and watched as another woman, either drunk or off her meds (or both), poked at the 20-something guy in front of her. Poked him squarely and repeatedly between his shoulder blades, asking him his name, why he was wearing a blue t-shirt, and if he would wear the red one next time. Every time someone walked on the bus, she called out to them, asking their name, and was ignored. What was her story? Whose daughter is she? Does she realize she's not really seen?

At the same stop that the guy and his friend decided to disembark from the crazy-train, lo and behold, Hollywood Jesus joined the ride.

He stepped on board and from his robe, pulled out his bus pass? exact change? (I curse the British guys blocking my view with their camera phones). Hollywood Jesus took a seat, his white robes and golden-brown locks flowing in the breeze that came in through the window above him. He blessed us with his presence for just two stops down Sunset, then, giving a warm goodbye to the driver, exited and crossed against traffic.

I'd heard of him, but had yet to share a Metro line with him. It makes me wonder, though, what his story is. If he's off his meds. But knowing that he too, is someone's son, and he too, probably just wants to be seen.

(Photo: Hollywood Jesus riding the bus via Oh My ... What a Shame.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Remembering 9.11 - panic attacks, ocean prayers, anthrax scares & art

How did I end up in flimsy latex gloves and an allergy mask, opening Mel Gibson's mail in search for signs of anthrax? It never rang more true, that old assistant's mantra. They don't pay me enough for this.

Two weeks earlier, after waking and watching the footage of the twin towers from the West coast, I went on auto-pilot.  I don't remember the drive from Burbank to Hollywood, whether the roads were clear of traffic, or what I said to the guard on my way into the offices at Paramount.  I do remember turning on the copier, measuring water and grinding beans and the smell of the coffee brewing.  Numb and uncertain, having never experienced anything like that in my 25 years in the U.S., I wondered if I was supposed to sit down at my desk?  Start reading scripts like it was any other day?

Those of us who came to work that Tuesday were sent home.  The impact of 9/11 didn't hit me fully for days, overwhelmed but unable to look away from the repeated footage of the planes crashing into the towers, the frightened people on the streets covered in ash.  There was a general sense of shock, having no coping tools for such an attack and loss of life.  It felt personal, and I felt helpless.

A few days later, having made the coffee, turned on the copier, and settled in with a script, the futility of that routine hit me, and I had a panic attack, managing to make it to my car to call my dad while I gasped for air.  I steered in the direction of Hollywood Presbyterian, where my friend had told me they were holding a prayer service, and after that, drove up Highway 1 to a secluded, rocky beach, nature being more of a church to me.  It was a place to turn away from the overwhelming images and conflicting messages about who to blame, to find space and place to be quiet.

I don't know if I realized I was mourning at the time, though 10 years later, we can see so much more of what was made visible when those towers were attacked.

Looking at a journal entry from September 2001, I had written about feeling suddenly thrust into the reality of a new war, learning about small countries that border Afghanistan.  At work we were in the middle of script development, production, and an anthrax scare, so I was opening the office's mail in latex gloves and an allergy mask.  Hardly worth the sad salary of an assistant, and not enough to protect me from a real threat, but then neither were the hastily erected barricades surrounding Paramount.  Did anyone know what to do anymore?

My world both contracting and expanding through the news coverage, I wasn't sure of my role any longer.  Pursuing careers in the arts and the entertainment industry, a friend asked, "In the midst of this, are art and humor still valid?"

And especially then, greeting actors and filmmakers with my plastic gloves and anthrax mask, I had to answer yes.  Now more than ever.

(Share your story, find links, videos more 9/11 recollections, remembrances and find links to videos and stories at The AFD Project.)

Friday, September 09, 2011

Breathing in The Naked Now (of 9.11)

With the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 falling on a Sunday, I groaned to think about the mash-up of church and state that might be happening all across the nation and world this weekend.  I happened to pick up a book recommended by both my friends Jaysen and Anne (Lamott that is, melding in reference the real, Jaysen, and the literary dream-friend).  Opening The Naked Now to chapter two, I read about the unspeakability of the Jewish revelation of the name of God.  "For those speaking Hebrew," Richard Rohr writes, it [Yahweh] was the Sacred Tetragrammaton YHVH. ...

"This unspeakability has long been recognized, but now we know it goes even deeper: formally the word was not spoken at all but breathed! Many are convinced that its correct pronunciation is an attempt to replicate and imitate the very sound of inhalation and exhalation."

Hmm.  Reminds me of my growing understanding of yoga and the sound of OM.

Rohr continues, "The one thing we do every moment of our lives is therefore to speak the name of God.  This makes it our first and our last word as we enter and leave the world.

"...I remind people that there is no Islamic, Christian, or Jewish way of breathing.  There is no American, African, or Asian way of breathing.  There is no rich or poor way of breathing.  The playing field is utterly leveled.  The air of the earth is one and and the same air, and this divine wind 'blows where it will' (John 3:8) — which appears to be everywhere. No one and no religion can control this spirit."

So on this weekend of remembrance of all that went wrong, all the retaliation on all sides, and the acts of love that are never small, I pray that we remember we breathe the same air, the same YHVH, that we are literally in this together.

"Just keep breathing consciously in this way and you will know that you are connected to humanity from cavemen to cosmonauts, to the entire animal world, and even to the trees and the plants. And we are now told that the atoms we breathe are physically the same as the stardust from the original Big Bang. Oneness is no longer merely a vague mystical notion, but a scientific fact."

~Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See
(Bolding mine)

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hooray! It's September!

Unabashedly, I love fall the most. Summer is too much like a teenager, demanding time spent at parties, sweating and glistening in the sun, worried it will all end too soon. Autumn, the fall comes, and I can breathe. Unfortunately, not necessarily so in Los Angeles, as this is when the fire season starts. But the idea is there, the season of sweaters and boots and tromping through leaves. Shorter days that lead to more lamp-light and book-reading and lingering over long dinners with wine. It invites contemplation more than its sister of sunny summer, and September always reminds me that it's here.

The Great Black Heron

Since I stroll in the woods more often
than on this frequented path, it's usually
trees I observe; but among fellow humans
what I like best is to see an old woman
fishing alone at the end of a jetty,
hours on end, plainly content.
The Russians mushroom-hunting after a rain trail after themselves a world of red sarafans,
nightingales, samovars, stoves to sleep on
(though without doubt those are not
what they can remember). Vietnamese families fishing or simply sitting as close as they can
to the water, make me recall that lake in Hanoi
in the amber light, our first, jet-lagged evening,
peace in the war we had come to witness.
This woman engaged in her pleasure evokes
an entire culture, tenacious field-flower
growing itself among the rows of cotton
in red-earth country, under the feet
of mules and masters. I see her
a barefoot child by a muddy river
learning her skill with the pole. What battles
has she survived, what labors?
She's gathered up all the time in the world
--nothing else--and waits for scanty trophies,
complete in herself as a heron.

- by Denise Levertov

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life Lessons from Mary the (Slow) Banker

Maybe not everybody should get to live their dream of being a bank teller, I thought, watching Mary.

Mary finally gave up on what I can only assume is a "control, alt, delete" function to re-start her machines so that I could swipe my debit card, and instead slowly typed my bank account and ID into her computer. I watched every, single, slow, deliberate keystroke, worried that my paycheck might not actually be entered into the correct account. I couldn't hear more than half of her mumbled words, as apparently the microphone in her booth didn't work either. While describing in detail every move she was making, she paused and looked at my hand, then looked up into my eyes to tell me what a pretty ring I was wearing. Thank you, Mary, I said, looking at her name-tag that said, Service Starts with Me: Mary.

I was in a rush, trying to make it to work on time, and had driven out of my way to the bank with a parking lot. To make life easier.

She continued to gaze at my ring. How much did you pay for it, she asked? Slow AND tacky, I thought, while smiling and saying, hmm... I don't remember exactly. 20 or 25 dollars? Oh, no, said Mary, now just gripping my receipt tightly in her hand while staring at my ring. I think that's agate, she said. That must me more than 20 dollars. I don't know, I said, wondering if my hand would fit under the plexi-glass to grab my receipt and parking ticket so I could make a run for it. And silver! she exclaimed.

I'd have to use the hand without the ring, so she couldn't grab hold of it to inspect it further.

I got a good deal, I said brightly, wondering how much the parking attendant would charge if I left without my validated ticket. Well, said Mary. Looking down at her own rings, she realized she was still in possession of my receipt, and proceeded to search her desk area for a little tube, that she slowly aligned with the top of my receipt, and pushing down firmly and carefully, added a smiley face to the top of my bank record. She smiled up at me, and then, with a slightly trembling hand, signed her name above the smiley stamp.

Pushing that and the parking ticket through the opening at the bottom of the window, she held her fingers on them a bit, as I tugged at them, the lower half of my body already angled toward my escape. Thank you for coming today! Mary said, barely legible through the think glass. There's coffee and candy for you...

THANK YOU MARY. I'm fine, I just have to get to work. She released my receipts, and I was gone, breezing past the free candy bowl and coffee area.

I was a few minutes late to work, and when I told my Mary story to a colleague, she said she often avoids going to Mary's teller window if she's in a rush. I can just picture it, a whole line of regulars ignoring the lighted arrow telling them to step right up to bank with Mary.

Thinking back on it, I realize Mary may have been teaching me a lesson. Not the one I immediately thought of (how not everyone is meant to be an astronaut or bank teller), but how I can respond in a situation that is not working out to please me. All Mary wanted to do was connect, to compliment me on the steal of a pretty ring I'd found, to wish me a happy day filled with smiley-faces, free hard candy and coffee. And all I could think of was my schedule, how, since I was not technically punching a clock, I felt Mary was infringing on MY time.

"'Happiness that lingers is not the face the world turns to you," she said. 'It is the face you turn to the world.'" (Sight Hound, by Pam Houston)

Sigh. Alright. I'm coming for you Mary, have your smiley stamp ready.

Happy smiling dog, originally uploaded by LivornoQueen.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Stories Our Leaders Tell Us Matter

"The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred. Our brains evolved to 'expect' stories with a particular structure, with protagonists and villains, a hill to be climbed or a battle to be fought. Our species existed for more than 100,000 years before the earliest signs of literacy, and another 5,000 years would pass before the majority of humans would know how to read and write.

"Stories were the primary way our ancestors transmitted knowledge and values. Today we seek movies, novels and 'news stories' that put the events of the day in a form that our brains evolved to find compelling and memorable. ... the holy books of the three great monotheistic religions are written in parables."

In "What Happened to Obama's Passion?" an opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University and the author of "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation" continues, setting the stage of Obama's inauguration in the midst of an economy spinning downward, a month in which three-quarters of a million people had lost their jobs. Westen offers a story that President Obama could have shared with the American people on his inauguration into office. One that would show he understood the suffering of the majority of the population, one that said "he understood what they were feeling, and that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. ... A story isn't a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. ...

"And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it."

Westen continues to tell the story of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and that when Barack Obama stepped into the Oval Office, "he stepped into a cycle of American history, best exemplified by F.D.R. and his distant cousin, Teddy."

Yet, instead of looking deeply at that history, Obama "chose to avert his gaze. Instead of indicting the people whose recklessness wrecked the economy, he put them in charge of it. He never explained that decision to the public — a failure in storytelling as extraordinary as the failure in judgment behind it."

Westen describes Obama's half-stimulus package, and that, to the average American, "who was still staring into the abyss, the half-stimulus did nothing but prove that Ronald Reagan was right, that government is the problem. In fact, the average American had no idea what Democrats were trying to accomplish by deficit spending because no one bothered to explain it to them with the repetition and evocative imagery that our brains require to make an idea, particularly a paradoxical one, stick."

I connect so deeply to this idea of story-telling, that we need to reclaim our narrative as a nation. Read the entire (beautifully written) piece here.

(Image from NYT)

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Not Alone... but Overwhelmed

Removing the bright blue wrapper from yesterday's New York Times, I saw the image of a starving child in Somalia. I'm thankful for the Times for printing this front page story to raise awareness about the famine, but it's hard to start the morning with tears and, reading the article about the insurgents blocking aid programs from providing food and water, a feeling of total helplessness.

And then to my job, where I'm surfing food blogs to find chefs for a reality show. The paradox of photos of the morning's photo of a child dying from malnutrition juxtaposed with gorgeous photos of specialty dishes is not lost on me. I just had a conversation with a friend from Holland, talking about the sickness of greed that has infected the first world, and particularly the U.S. To have SO much wealth concentrated in such small areas, while vast swaths of humanity are suffering, where tens of thousands of Somalis are already dead, and more than 500,000 children are on the brink of dying, is sickness. It's unbearable, and I don't know what to do.

So I went for a walk after work, and via Pandora on my phone, Michael Franti sang to me.

"I'm Not Alone" is not an answer, but it's something that keeps my spirits up, and keeps me asking how. How can we actively show others that they are not alone? How can we change the course of history, NOW? How can we get food to these starving children, NOW. How?

And I'm reminded of the work Amani is doing in the Congo, reminded that these women and children and families are not alone — that good work is being done.

From Nabirugu*, one of the women in the sewing collective that is supported by your donations.

"My name is Nabirugu*. I am 21 years old. I have no father. I joined the ABFEK centre 10 months ago and today I am ready to go and start my own sewing workshop based on the skills I have [learned]. Today I am able to measure,cut fabrics and join them. I can now make dresses, skirts, a pair of shorts, pants, and blouses. Isn’t this progress? I learned to use sewing equipments in this centre, before that time I had never used a pair of scissors to cut fabrics or a tape measure. I am very proud of my training in this centre. Now I have hope and confidence. I hope for success in my life. If I succeed to get my own sewing machine, I can start a small business such as making school pupils uniforms,make [outfits] from fabrics when there is a wedding ceremony, make my own clothes without paying as I was doing before. We need to start learning embroidery and then people will not be taking their fabrics to Bukavu if they need embroidery. I am very happy and I thank everyone who has donated his money to provide us with the sewing equipment we are using in this centre."

We're not alone.

Tell Congress to help Somalia NOW.  (Via the International Rescue Committee)

(*Names are changed to protect the identity of women in the workshops.)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dolly at the Bowl and News of Oslo: Little Sparrow

Dolly saved my soul tonight.

"I'm gonna preach," she said in that eastern Tennessee lilt I love, and after railing on those people who predict the end times, she started to sing about how we're "so consumed with fear of dying we miss the joy of living..."

I kept reminding myself to stay in the moment, to soak up every bit of her Dolly-isms and the fact that, sitting in the third to last row, in section W,  there were just 17,000 people separating me from this legend. As she told stories of growing up in the hills of Tennessee, I wanted to be enveloped in her history, her family, and her enormous bosom.  She's just so unabashedly — DOLLY. 

Dolly played a harmonica, an auto-harp, a recorder for song about the Smokey Mountains, a saxophone for a bluesy tune, and a bedazzled piano.  She sang an a cappella rendition of "Little Sparrow" which was so haunting, the entire, sold-out Bowl was still.  She quickly followed with the  sing-a-long crowd-pleasers "Islands in the Sea" and "9 to 5."  It was HEAVENLY.

Somewhat literally for me.  I find, when I'm outside of church, in what to me is church, outdoors, under trees and a star (or three, which is fantastic for being right off the 101 in Hollywood), surrounded by people who are being kind to each other and pouring cups of water and wine, I already feel more connected. And then, there's Dolly. Her plastic surgery, her unabashed flirting and acknowledgment that she "wants to go to heaven. But it sure is hell trying to get there." Talking about Jesus in her songs and how we should just enjoy life and love one another.  While singing one of her new gospel songs from a new movie with Queen Latifah, I was moved to tears.  Feeling wounded by the church and the right-wing politics that have taken over Christianity, I push away and bury deeply so much of what I love about the faith.  That God is love.  That the God of Love is in everything.

And yet, just now, as I type this in a euphoric high of post-Dolly in Hollywood, I read my LA Times news breaker that the man suspected of the bombing and mass-murders in Oslo Norway is being described as a "right-wing Christian," and the death toll is up to 91.

Fuck. I have no other word and want one that hasn't been so overly-used to lose its power. Anger and sorrow mixed. Fuck. I want to believe that the God of Love is in everything, but what do I do with this news?  I've lost my Dolly-buzz and am back into reality, and trying, trying to be still in the midst of chaos and pray for a more loving world.  For those in Norway, I hope that love shows itself in the midst of this senseless tragedy.  Suddenly the sad song of "Little Sparrow" seems like a good way to close.

(Photo: Hollywood Bowl)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Pass the buck. Action Kivu on - log on to donate a dollar!

Do you philanthrop?  (Philanthropize?  I'm always attempting to coin new verbs.) is sort of like those daily deal sites, but instead, they give you the option to do good, one dollar a day, if you choose.  And today, Friday, July 22nd, they're featuring Action Kivu!

"Passing the buck" is generally not a flattering phrase, so we're re-defining it, and asking you to pass along a buck to the women and children of eastern Congo. $1.  100 pennies.  You've got that to give, right?  Log in at, give a buck and tell your friends.  (If you missed our day and, naturally, you want to philanthropize for Action Kivu, you can always donate here.  In fact, you can make it a recurring donation  — 4$ / month, the cost of a latte, will send one child to school.)

Check out the Action Kivu blog to learn more!  And log on today to to pass the buck along to women and children who need your help.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

L'amour est inévitable

Westwood Village, in the heart of UCLA's campus, has a large population of homeless folk.  I'm not sure why, but my theory is the ease of picking up recyclables to cash in.  A morning walk on any given weekend reveals red plastic cups, the quintessential college vessel for cheap beer, and post-party cans and bottles that they leave strewn upon lawns, sidewalks and passed out frat-guys.

Walking past one of the Village boutiques that I can't afford, a small shop that imports their wares from Italy and likely thinks it acceptable to charge 50 dollars for a tee-shirt simply because the price is marked in euros, I saw one of the regular homeless women staring into the shop window.  She leaned in, her tattered grey dress hanging down over her dirty bare feet, seemingly transfixed by the words on a tank-top: L'amour est inévitable.

I wish I could wear that tee-shirt without irony.  I wish I could afford that tee-shirt.  Though I'm a hopeless optimist at heart, and believe love is the outcome of all that's happening, I'm disheartened daily by the increasing number of people struggling in this world and the role we all play in that.  As our own governments, local and federal, cut programs to save money, more people are left on the street, many in need of medication, unable to grasp reality, let alone land a job in an economy where college grads are unemployed.  At the same time, "US spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has already cost at least $3.2 trillion, and could reach as high as $4.4 trillion, far higher than previous estimates, according to a new study released by Brown University.

I'm heartened by lovely connections I see daily, especially to and from work on the bus, where I see punk kids give up their seats, shuffling their skateboards to the back as they help the elderly sit down.  I recognize there are days when it's hard for me to practice consciousness awareness, to be open to others around me when I'm consumed by my own worries, large and small.  But, as Desmond Tutu wrote about the concept of Ubuntu: "My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.  We belong in a bundle of life. We say, 'A person is a person through other persons.' It is not 'I think, therefore I am.' It says rather: 'I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.' ... A person with ubuntu ... has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are. ... It is the best form of self-interest.  What dehumanizes you inexorably dehumanizes me." (No Future Without Forgiveness)

Since I can't afford that shirt, I guess I'll just have to make it clear in other ways that l'amour est inévitable.  I'd love to hear your love stories and random acts of kindness.  Meanwhile, I'll wait for some rich person to buy the tank-top, grow bored by it, and sell it to Crossroads Trading Co., where I'll pick it up for a cool 8 bucks.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Sound of Yoga OM-G

Every Wednesday night I let my inner yogi out to play at YogaGlo.  (You can glo too, even if you don't live near the studio - they offer classes online and streaming video here.)  Steven Espinosa teaches a beginner's class, and I plan to never graduate.  He's gentle and careful and funny and reminds us it's okay to rest, in our practice and in life, and always opens the class with a lesson about how yoga fits into our daily lives and world. 

Last night he talked about the sound of "OM."  We begin each class by sitting comfortably, paying attention to our breathing, and then, when we've become a little more present with our bodies, our minds, and our hearts, together we offer three OMs.  Steven explained how the meaning can vary across traditions, whether you learn about it from Buddhism or Hinduism or another "ism," but the overarching understanding is that it is the original, primordial sound of the universe.  So when we breathe out in OM, we are adding our sound to that that is already there, in everything. 

He also explained how it can be viewed as the cycle of life and of a yoga practice.  Beginning with your lips closed, a hum that grows into the OM, mouth open, breathing out, ending in silence with the last of the breath.  In yoga practice, we begin with breath and silence, transition into energy flow and movement, and then finish in savasana, which is corpse pose.  Thus the end of life, or the evening's class, however you want to view it. 

Every week our OM is different as different people gather and add their various energies to the universal one.  One week I felt like I was in that commercial, sitting in front of a giant speaker my hair and skin being blown back as I struggled to stay upright, the energy was so loud and strong.  Most weeks it's a gentle hum that is still filled with power. 

This week, as I tried to time my movements with my breath, it felt like I was trying too hard, I was too aware and not in rhythm.  By the end, as I relaxed into savasana, letting my hands and feet relax heavy into the floor, I became aware of a wild energy swirling through me.  The image I saw was a furious storm centered in my heart and stomach, more OMG! than OM.  Lying there, in corpse pose, I was able to detach from it enough to welcome it.  As I've been learning from the Buddhist tradition, I don't need to label and judge these things, but be aware that this too is part of life.  And last night, part of my yoga practice.  It had seemed distracting, but instead it was just waiting for me to notice it.

A lot has been happening on the ground in the Congo lately, and good change is happening as our friend and Action Kivu partner Amani has been partnering with other organizations and people to make his dreams a reality.  He wants nothing less than peace for his community and country, and healing for the women and children who have suffered so much in the conflict.  After starting a Sewing Collective to teach women a trade and give them a safe place to gather, Amani envisioned a "Peace Market," a safe, communal space along the border, where the Congolese and Rwandans could come together and work alongside each other towards peace and  a stronger, healthier economy.  And this last weekend, it became a reality, due to his hard work and the partnership of other amazing organizations including Empower Congo Women and Falling Whistles. See photos and read more about the Peace Market at the Action Kivu blog, and the testimony of one woman whose life will change by having the simple shelter needed to sell her fabrics and clothes. 

That energy swirling through me?  I think it has something to do with this.  To witness and be a small part of great change that is adding to the healing and repairing of this crazy world.  My Action Kivu partner and friend Cate and I are planning a trip to the Congo late this fall.  Amani has asked me to write his story, and the story of his community, and there is nothing I want to do more, and nothing I'm more afraid of than that honor and challenge.  Scrimping and saving to make that dream a  reality, and to sit in the midst of the swirling energy of excitement and fear, to breathe through it and accept it and work with it. 

Thanks, yoga.  

(Savasana photo: Scott's Yoga Forum)

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Riding with Strangers / How Chimps Attack

Over pancakes, eggs, decaf coffee (me), and tea (roomie), the roommate and I discussed how chimps attack people (they first go for the jaw, so as to break the mandible, what they themselves use to fight), what it's like to feel caged, and whether it's nature or nurture to find natural body odor offensive. A typical Tuesday morning.  Later I sat in my cubicle at work, judging people in my casting capabilities, gnawing on a banana and wondering how far we've come from attacking each other.

Riding on the bus, I often have time and the olfactory experience to wonder about the body odor question. But for the majority of my bus riding, I really enjoy being car-free.  One of my favorite things in life is to people-watch, eavesdrop and speculate about the lives they lead.  I never did learn the story behind the immaculately dressed elderly woman, a diamond the size of a baseball on her left finger, pulling what looks to be her life's belongings in a collapsible cart while talking to her companion, a Spaniard in a worn suit and long mustache.

Today, I walked up to my stop in Santa Monica and watched the number 10 bus breeze by, as I gave the universal sign "not my bus" by shaking my head and stepping back from the curb.   Unfortunately, my bus-stop friend did not know the signals, and was baffled that her bus didn't stop for her, when she was clearly holding a dollar in her hand.

Jumping on the number 1 bound for UCLA, I asked the driver whether another 10 would be coming by soon.  No, he said, tell her to get on, and we'll try to catch up with her bus.  Erwin the bus driver sped around traffic, quickly eying the stops to make sure he didn't need to veer right to pick up other riders, contacted the 10 bus via his Metro-phone, and timed it just right to catch up, so the lost passenger could hop on her downtown-bound bus.

As I exited my regular stop, I left from the front of the bus, and thanked Erwin once again for taking the time, making the effort to help one passenger.  I enjoyed doing it, he said.  It made me feel good.

It's the little acts of connectedness that keep my faith in humanity alive. These moments remind me we actually are more evolved than chimps.

(Photo courtesy Long Strange Trip)

Saturday, June 04, 2011

CULTure of Beauty

"Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something."
— William Goldman (The Princess Bride)

A friend and I went to see the CULTure of Beauty exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Walking in I was face to face with many of the models and images I try to avoid looking at lately, in order to maintain at least a slight amount of love for my own hips, thighs, nose and mouth that are uniquely me.

I was also confronted with images of a child beauty queen, a needle inserted into already pillowy lips to plump them further, and an elderly woman whose involuntary shaking made her grip her animal print cane tighter to balance on her black and white pumas, shaking that made her wide-brimmed red hat vibrate violently. In front of every model she ooh-ed and ahh-ed over their slender, air-brushed beauty, and I thought, she just doesn't get it. This is supposed to enrage, not encourage.

But then I realized that I could look at Christy Turlington's face for hours and still find it beautiful. As stated in the short documentary that is part of the exhibit, "beauty appeals to our most base instincts and our highest spiritual longings." The point of the exhibit, for me, was to be aware and mindful of that one image of beauty we're being sold today. And instead, to see the beauty in all faces, especially in the wizened, wrinkled face beaming out from beneath her shaking red hat.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Writing and life advice: Have less stuff (and don't stab Al Franken in the head with a pencil)

Last night WriteGirl, a non-profit that mentors at-risk girls with professional women writers, hosted a fundraiser to honor five women for their bold writing.  After a warm and funny introduction by one of her former roommates, Sarah Silverman took the stage.  She twisted her note cards in her hands, explaining that her speech would be one of those filled with bullet points and no meaningful ending.

The things I learned from Sarah Silverman's hilarious acceptance speech for her Bold Ink Award:

Feminine facial hair and the experiences we endure to remove it is ALWAYS funny. Sarah talked about her first brow "separating" appointment, to make two eyebrows out of the one. Following the clinician back to the room, the woman stopped, turned around and asked Sarah, "So, will it just be the mustache today?"

Whenever possible, reference NADS, from Australia.

Stabbing Al Franken in his "winter Jew-fro" while a fellow writer on SNL is a funny story, but might not have made sense in the moment. "I wasn't asked back to SNL," Sarah told us. "I'd like to blame the fact that everyone saw me stab Al Franken in the head, but when I look back at the sketches I wrote, they were terrible." (A reminder to keep writing / working, shitty first drafts are inevitable and necessary.)

"Write prose just like you talk. Just take out all the likes."

If you're supporting yourself and your stuff by "doing something that crushes your artistic soul, stop doing it. Just have less stuff."

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Animal Messengers

"Animals in nature always have a message for us," my DailyOM email told me. "Start noticing what animals show up in your life and when."
I live in Los Angeles, in the middle of UCLA's frat community.  Thus, the animals I've encountered recently include a sidewalk squirrel I had to sidestep, so focused was he on the spilled In&Out, he didn't give a damn about human foot traffic.  A crow who kept dropping branches on my head before successfully beaking one with with to build her nest.  And a drunk man-child weaving his way home during my morning walk.  What messages might I have missed? 

I noticed the effort the crow made, never giving up on securing a branch in her beak. As the little bits of tree limb fell down into my hair I was reminded that I'm just a visitor, living in their wild world where nests need to be made.  I saw two other crows pecking at a plastic bag outside an overturned garbage can and my heart broke a little.  A tiny gecko spun in dazed circles after my friend and I and our big feet accidentally interrupted his long journey across the sidewalk.  Though his tail was smushed a little, he regained his balance and another passerby assured us that lizards' tails are made to regenerate. 

"Animals share our planet with us, but experience it differently—each has its own abilities and gifts that allow them to interact successfully with the natural world. Since we are merely one manifestation of the universe’s energy in action, when we feel the need for direction we can turn to animals in nature for guidance. Animals can show us different ways to approach and deal with our challenges."

So, the lessons I'm taking from the animals in my wild life:  nesting, regeneration, and standing my ground to get my morsel in the middle of the ebb and flow of life and traffic.  Oh, and not to get so drunk I'm stumbling home at 7am.  Thanks, fratanimal.