Saturday, November 28, 2015


Storage.  We’re so used to the concept of storage. Closets, plastic bins, shelves, cupboards, garages, attics and off-site rental spaces - the more it grows, the more we get used it. Long ago, my husband and I purchased a special wooden shelf with slots designed to hold cassette tapes. It was functional and made of nice, light-colored wood with a felt backing and brackets to attach it to a wall. It was storage as decoration. Decoration with bonus storage. We took our cassettes out of the cardboard box they’d been living in and slid them into the waiting slots. We had arrived.

One day, we bought a cassette tape and brought it home. The shelf was full. My husband said, “Oh, we need to get a new shelf.” Something clicked in my head and I suggested “We need to get rid of an old cassette to make room for this new one.” I suddenly realized that storage doesn’t end. There are always more shelves to buy. It was a turning point for us and we stopped looking at storage as an ever-expandable supply. We started using our space as a fixed limitation. If the space is full, something has to go. One in, one out. Sometimes, it’s one in, two out.

Along the way I started reading about alternatives to the mainstream consumer-driven American lifestyle. Back in the day, it was called voluntary simplicity. Now it’s called minimalism. Whatever it’s called, it just makes sense. Acquiring things only ties us down. We wind up spending money on more and more storage for the stuff we didn't need in the first place.

Once one understands the false allure of ever-expanding storage, one can appreciate getting away from it. Open space is calming. Not having anything to dust is freeing. Once a new acquaintance stopped over our house, looked around and asked if we had just moved in. We’d been there 14 years. I loved the emptiness of that house, it was spare and functional. Things need breathing room, just like people. A shelf with only one or two things on it looks more hopeful than one packed to the gills.

Not accumulating things is a huge directional change for most people. We are sold the ideal of acquiring more and more. Our economy depends on shopping as entertainment, even shopping for more special purpose storage containers. Better, our hard-earned money should be saved, or used to spend on the people and experiences that really matter in life. Were we enriched by owning a shelf full of cassettes? Better to buy a ukulele and spend time jamming with friends or go to a concert.

We’ve come a long way from those youngsters with their cassette shelf. We eventually gave up the house, cars and all the stuff to move aboard a sailboat for a few years. Now we divide our time between the sailboat and a tiny apartment. I don’t miss any of the stuff and I still try to keep the boat lockers and apartment cupboards only half full. We love our freedom far more than closets and plastic bins.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

the itch to travel

While I know there are some of us who are perfectly content to live out our lives in one place and draw comfort from consistency, many people dream of traveling. We live in an age where traveling usually isn't too dangerous, too expensive, or too disruptive. We've seen the sights already in thousands of photographs, so we think we know what to expect. But until you actually close your front door, suitcase in hand, it's only dreaming.

Thirteen years ago, my mother-in-law and her sister made good on their dream of travel. They loaded up the van with clothes, a cooler, camping supplies (good intentions), books, Scotch, maps, and a cell phone (that was only turned on certain hours of the day) and embarked on a journey across the United States. They started from Schenectady NY and took the southern route across and up to Seattle WA and Victoria BC and back across the northern states.

I got the itch to read the journal my mother-in-law kept and share it. She also dictated a few adventures into a tape recorder. We got the tapes converted to a CD and she loaned me the CD, the photo albums and the notebook. Many hours of enjoyable typing later, here are their adventures.

My working title for the project comes from the introduction to several of the tape entries. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

book review - The Novice

We all have things we need to work on in life. Sometimes we don’t realize what we need to work on. Most times, however, we know the area of “development need” (“opportunity”?), but don’t really want to look our deficits straight in the eye. I’ve been ignoring one such for most of my life, but a few years ago, decided that it was high time to get working on it. 

In my case, I’m speaking of the peculiar shade of self-centeredness that can develop in an only child (my sister arrived when I was 10) with doting parents. Or maybe it’s just my natural state, that didn’t get challenged early on. I can apply some harsh (but truthful) words to describe myself: judgmental, selfish, miserly, critical, arrogant. The picture emerges…

I’ve learned about habits and training from simple things like diet and exercise and finally realized that I could apply study and practice to learning compassion, too. Practice eventually becomes change. 

So, I’m studying. 

In browsing the shelves in my new library, I found this parable of compassion, set down by Thích Nhất Hạnh. It’s a very old Buddhist story, but he retells it in charming English prose (one of the several languages he is proficient in). It’s a simply lovely book. 

The parable is one of Kinh Tam, a daughter of a wealthy family in long ago rural Vietnam who aspires at an early age to become a Buddhist nun. In the time she lives, there are no temples for nuns, only monks, so she disguises herself as a boy and runs off. Along her way, she encounters false accusations and injustice. The way in which she overcomes these injustices is to accept the consequences without trying to prove her innocence and practice magnanimity toward her accusers and the world as a whole. She rises above the injustices by reflecting loving kindness and compassion back at those who cast her out and beat her. Upon her death, the injustices are revealed and the accusers are profoundly changed by her love and the village builds a temple for nuns. 

After the retelling of the parable, the book includes a essay by Thích Nhất Hạnh and also one written about his life by one of his long-time students, Sister Chan Khong. Many things that have happened to Thích Nhất Hạnh parallel the injustices portrayed in the parable. His continued compassion, loving kindness and service to his students and countrymen, especially during the long Vietnam war, echo the compassionate practices of Kinh Tam.

Strongly recommended reading. Parables are great ways to internalize lessons. Study and practice. Practice and study. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

slow housewifery

This week I am embracing the role of housewife.  As long as I am unemployed, might as well savor the joys of what I’m calling “slow housewifery”. My mother did this every day, as long as I knew her. It involves simple daily tasks and projects done at a thoughtful (dare I say, mindful) pace and with appreciation for the task and for its outcome. (I also just finished reading hand wash cold and loved the author’s care instructions for an ordinary life.)

After exercise and breakfast, the day begins with the tidying phase. Tidying is making the bed, sweeping the floor and cleaning up the breakfast mess. These little jobs don’t take long, but they are so satisfying when completed. I recently read Colin Wright’s post about the time he takes each week to reset his life to zero and decided I wanted to do that with the daily tidying. Every morning. Reset the rooms to zero. 

The next phase is to leave, get out, shuffle into the light. The outdoors is a huge part of my happy mind. Even if I have already gone for a run before breakfast, I feel the need to get out once the tidying is done. In this new town, there is a nice grocery store a 20-minute walk from the apartment. I gather my canvas bag and list (I use the Paprika recipe manager and love it!), sally forth, and turn on Map My Run, so I can get credits for my challenges. Even if I only need one item, the walk out helps me greet the day.

I explore along the way, of course, since I am still learning this town. The other day I happened upon a soccer field with two fire trucks parked, one from our town and one from the next town over. The radio was on and the gear was all piled neatly ready to be donned in case they got a call, but the teams were enjoying a beautiful fall day out of the station.

In between the high rise office buildings and parking garages that make up this section of town (and I use the term loosely, since this is not a town, but a “census-designated place”), the development authorities are attempting to preserve a bit of nature in the tween spaces and make it accessible to pedestrians. Translation: there are trails through the woods!  Yi-ha!  I found a place to walk! One of these trails is actually on the way between my apartment and the grocery store. 

Once I have returned with today’s recipe ingredients (black bean-sweet potato chili and cornbread) and put them away, it’s time for the second cup of tea and to get down to the day’s projects. My current project is to digitize a notebook and audio recordings created during the 2002 round-the-country journey my mother-in-law and her sister made. I have the photos scanned, the audio transcribed and am 3/4 of the way through the handwritten notebook. I plan to post the edited version into blog format so the whole family can relive it anytime.

Yesterday I also enjoyed some plain old connection time. I chatted on the phone with both my daughter and mother-in-law about just stuff: what friends and family are up to, who made what Halloween costume (and which dog has to wear the pig suit again this year!) and what fun recipes they’ve been making. 

Life. Slow. Mindful. Tidy. 

The path to the grocery store. The leaves smelled so good this morning.

Monday, November 2, 2015

book review - The Buddha Walks into the Office

I’m currently unemployed.

I had a nice job that I quite enjoyed, but it was in a city we no longer live in. I am missing the people there and the projects. I liked it because I basically got to invent the job and build a framework of procedures to maintain the departmental computer hardware and software inventory. I was a steward of the computer assets and of the interactions of the people with their computer issues. 

So, what does one do when one is currently unemployed? Hunt for jobs? Or, go to the library and get a pile of books to read? Off I went to get a new library card and browse the shelves. This book was sitting on the shelf waiting for me.

It’s been on my reading list for awhile. The author is a meditation teacher of some renown that I have taken some online classes with. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about stewardship and the Buddhist concept of Right Livelihood. 

The tag line for this book is “A Guide to Livelihood for a New Generation”. While I’m not young, I am (again) at one of the crossroads of life when one evaluates one’s direction. Unemployment does that. 

Lodro is a gifted writer. His writing is accessible and polished. This book is a blend of personal perspective and Buddhist teachings. 

He organizes the text into four parts, encompassing three yanas (Sanskrit for vehicle):
  1. Hinayana: Live with Purpose
  2. Mahayana: On-the-Job Compassion
  3. Mahayana: Six Tools for Compassionate Leadership
  4. Vajrayana: Be Awake for Each Moment
I specifically enjoyed reading, in part 2, the Three Steps for Creating Social Change through Inner Change. 
Step 1: Cutting through Fixed Views, which is familiar to me as managing expectations. Or maybe I should say “unmanaging expectations”.
Step 2: Raising Your Gaze, which speaks of removing yourself from emotional clouds in your view.
Step 3: Compassionate Activity, which basically says to be present and be the positive change you want to see.

While written for people currently in their 20’s and 30’s, it is a compelling read for anyone looking to see their daily work in a new light. I would (and maybe will) read it a second time through. It gave me some insight into how to be a more compassionate person in the workplace and also to understand the concept of "work" in daily living, as in - they are the same thing. Now, armed with some touchy-feely-goodness about work, maybe I can get out of the chair and find some.