Monday, June 30, 2008

Montreal trip

Just to say we were in Montreal this weekend, a much quicker trip than from Brooklyn. Still, it was still about five hours. We broke it up with a visit to some other recent Brooklyn ex-pats who moved to Montpelier just before we moved to the Pioneer Valley. They fed us lunch on Friday and showed us their lovely, lovely house, and lovely, lovely gardens. Really nice.

We were visiting our friends Glenn and Su in Montreal, where we visited in 2005. Their move to Canada really inspired me to move out of the city, and I thought long and hard about moving to Montreal or Toronto. Not sure I could ever get Dave to do that, though, and my mother would have balked too.

Su and Glenn have a great house too in a really nice neighbordhood, Notre Dame de Gras. But I realized driving in, with the lights and the structures and the steel and concrete -- and the traffic! -- that I really don't miss the city. I am thrilled to live in the country. We made the right choice.

It was a short visit and we were all pretty tired, and the weather was gray and rainy on Saturday. So mostly we hung around the house. It was great to talk politics and the state of the world and what it's like to move out of the city -- that was a big topic of discussion. They moved in June or July 2004, we moved in November 2006, so they have a longer perspective on the transition process, naturally. Moving throws everything up in the air: friends, family, work, play, leisure time, food, shopping, noise, weather, doctors, service providers (had to find a new dentist and eye doc after nearly 20 years of happy service), school, etc., etc. Change is good, though, right? Keeps you young.

The four of us walked into the city in the evening, a very nice walk but long, eight kilometers, Glenn thought, along the canal, and by the end I started feel really sick to my stomach. It was hot and humid and we had had a big dinner topped with ice cream and it all felt like to much for me. We got to the jazz festival around 9pm and I got a call from Lily, who was home with their son. She was homesick. Lonely for us. So I turned around and came home. Su kindly escorted me and I took a hot shower and went to bed.

Lily was thrilled to see me and went right to sleep while I showered. She woke up on Sunday morning -- we all slept late; great sleeping there in their basement guest room, dark and cool -- with a crummy cold. She gets cranky when she's that sick and tired, so the rest of the day wasn't great. We had a lovely brunch the five of us and then we drove home.

So, a short but fun visit. Montreal is just a lovely city and all that French made me feel like I was in Europe at the very least, if not France (what do I know, I've never been to France). The houses in their neighborhood were all different and interesting in ways that NYC can be similar and boring. A lot of what we saw reminded me of parts of Queens, but nicer.

Still, we made the right choice. Glad to live in the country. Also glad we have such thoughtful, interesting, and loving friends like Glenn and Su and their kids. Really helps me keep my faith in things knowing they are in the world.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Three things +

Three things of recent note:

We have a resident snake, a ribbon snake about 18 inches long, and I have named her Sylvia. She lives in the rocks between the front door and the driveway and likes to sun herself when it's warm out. Well, who doesn't. I promise a photo. When I was cleaning the cars a couple of weeks ago she kept me company most of the day.

I saw a scarlet tanager off the deck this morning! (Dave called it our scarlet teenager.) I thought it was a cardinal, exciting but a bit blase, until Dave said no, that's not a cardinal! And I realized he was a much more brilliant red and his wing was quite dark, almost black.

Went with work to MASS MoCA, which was great and the journey there was worth the entire trip. We took route 2, aka the Mohawk Trail, west to North Adams. It is gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Lots of ohs-and-ahs views, and a great hairpin curve that made me yawn, after driving in Crete. This museum is a wonderful place to bring kids, too. Come visit us and we'll make a day of it. The drive is worth the trip.

Oh, here's a fourth: We went strawberry picking today. Had to go southeast to Granby, east of South Hadley, because the berries up here aren't open for PYO until next week and I was hot to trot, er, pick. Thank goodness we didn't have to go all the way to Connecticut.

Strawberries (did you know they are really grown in straw?) aren't nearly as fun to pick as raspberries, as you have to crouch to get the buggers, and they are very hidden in the leaves. But we got about 15 pounds in an hour, and I now have to clean and freeze then. The place was also selling their own yellow cherry tomatoes, so we got some of those. On the way home we got asparagus, at the farm across the street from Lily's horse camp, where she's going in a week. And of course we found some rhubarb. Yes, I have strawberry-rhubarb crumble or crisp or pie in my future.

But then we went to Websters Seafood on Damon Road for lunch and now I can't even think about eating. Remind us to take you there, when you come. Dave had scallops that were pretty little but the lady said they only get them for about a month every year, and he said they were great. I had a piece of broiled scrod. Lily always gets chicken finger-type food. And they have great fries.

Thank god for Summer Fridays. They are time-sucks on the job but they really do help me regroup and recharge. I used mine yesterday to meet a new friend for breakfast, straighten the house, and get to the gym for a strenuous workout. Oh, and we watched Once, a really interesting indie movie from Ireland. I liked it a lot. Dave says he's doing his best to find me chick flicks, because by the time we start watching, after Lily is in bed, it's 9pm and I fall asleep. I also am not so into the recent thrillers and such, although sometimes one sticks to me. I liked the bank heist one, Inside Man, which I just learned is a Spike Lee movie. And I didn't care for Michael Clayton, or let's just say I couldn't stay awake for it, or The Good German, either. I'm a total lightweight these days.

Tonight we go to party nearby with the theme of the Beatles. "No Yoko," the invite says, so of course I am going as Yoko, which is really simple: black and white clothes, a short pendant necklace, a hat, and sunglasses perched on your nose so you can peer over them. I'll probably wear a white shirt with black pants and jacket. I don't have quite the right hat, but mine'll do. She's so heavy.

I have to admit it's getting better.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Pema report

So my mom and I went to Omega last weekend to hear Pema Chodron, and I had a really interesting experience, starting right from the beginning: The campus didn't feel all that different from my home. I left a home full of lovely green forest and flowers and fresh, rich air, and two hours later I was walking around hearing the same birds and seeing the same view. I think it made the weekend a lot less dramatic, and that troubled me, a bit.

I worried that I didn't get it, that I wasn't appreciating Pema enough, that her message was so simple, almost too simple, that I wanted to hear something more complicated or deep. Or intellectual? Nevertheless, she was extraordinary. Quiet, smart, very funny, topical, and yes, deeply spiritual.

I remember hearing a criticism about Eat, Love, Pray, that the writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, just does yoga and then has a latte, like this is something bad, or it means she's not having a spiritual experience. Never mind that being in an ashram in India for months at a time, meditating and working hard, isn't exactly like taking a yoga class. But whatever the valid criticisms of this book, I think whoever said that doesn't understand that even the Dalai Lama likes iPods. That deeply spiritual people can also be fun and fun to be with. Pema Chodron knows what's happening, she gets the joke, she's a part of this world and her Buddhist world, and that's why she's so extraordinary. She's an emissary to the other, a path to finding a way to live in this increasingly tense, insane, violent world.

We are so trained to be anti-spiritual that only in very specific, formulaic ways, a bar mitzvah, say, or a baptismal, does our embittered society accept our attempts to get out of ourselves and find love and compassion for ourselves and the world. And often then many of us don't accept it. We judge it and think the people who do those seemingly meaningless rituals are just stupid or blind or traditional, god forbid. I remember going to the funeral of the mother of a friend in high school and it was at a church, and I realized why people believe in a god, or go to church or temple. Who wants to be alone, in good times or bad?

Speaking as someone who prided herself on her intellectualism, her precociousness, who was entirely of the rational, Enlightened world, I see now how dismissive I was of any hint of spirituality because I thought my thinking brain was all-important, all I needed. I didn't understand that people are both, left brain and right brain, that spirituality is the way of strength, not weakness, and that to live with a strong spiritual life is to live fearlessly. Not entirely, not always, but I do not live in fear the way I used to, and that is largely because of prayer and meditation and my other spiritual practices. I was taught several years ago to find someone who has what you want and do what they do, and I don't want cynicism or cruelty or judgment in my life.

Pema had a co-leader named Tim Olmsted, an old friend of hers and also an incredible teacher, who talked to us about meditation specifics and we practiced with him at the beginning of every session. I kept falling asleep. I meditate just about every morning (weekends can be hard) and I've never had that problem. I know it was partly because I had gotten up early and was eating big meals (the food at Omega is amazing) and not getting much exercise and the room was full of people so it was really hot. But still part of me felt like I had done something bad, which I know is not the point of meditation. Omega offers an hour mediation in the mornings before the programs start, and I did that both days. Twenty minutes of sitting, 20 minutes of walking, and then another 20 of sitting. That went better for me.

I told Tim that I knew this was sacrilege but I felt like his teachings were more helpful to me in a practical way at that moment than hers. He said, yes, that's sacrilege! But it was true. I loved being in her presence. I really like hearing her. But I think I also felt like, I keep dipping into Buddhism around the edges, like Geneen Roth, who reportedly has a long-standing Buddhist practice and tries to carry it onto her disciples without calling it Buddhism, necessarily. She doesn't even call it mindfulness. She's wonderful, I like her a lot, but at this point in my journey I don't want watered-down Buddhism, I want Buddhism. Being at Omega the audience was clearly not all Buddhist. Such a mix meant a simpler message, I suspect, although I am sure no less authentic.

As part of being a Buddhist retreat we were asked to be silent from after Friday night dinner to just before Saturday night dinner. I was looking forward to it, and Mum and I brought pads and pens and were prepared. And yes, for practical purposes, writing is okay. It was excruciating and scary for me at first. When I got back to my dorm room that night I felt totally alone. I wanted so much to talk and chat, and process -- to connect, to be understood, to be heard. But I wasn't supposed to, not that way. Just try it, see how it feels, I've been taught. People who have what I want do this all the time. So I tried it. I watched how hard it was for me not to have someone to process things with, and how I actually avoid my feelings and my experience, even, by talking. I am not in the present, in the moment, when I talk. Or maybe it's that I am much more in the present when I don't. I saw immediately that I have two new spiritual tools, not speaking, and listeningm which of course is an entirely different thing from not speaking.

But by breakfast Saturday morning, not even 12 hours later, I could already hear murmurings from other participants, and by lunchtime I moved my table twice and still heard whispers. I thought, what do they have to say that's so important? And as Tim said Saturday evening, when you don't honor the silence you rob everyone else of the experience too. You mess it up for everyone else. I was angry, resentful, at first, and then accepting. Oh, well. It is what it is, as Kim says. And it made me want to attend a true silent Buddhist retreat. No more watered-down Buddhism. Or maybe, more, but also add some direct Buddhist experiences. Who knows when I will get a chance to do one even a short one, given that I have two weeks of vacation and a family. But I will. But maybe I can do a weekend some time. And next weekend I am going to hear Sharon Salzberg talk about meditation (thanks to my new friend Brigid, who told me about it), so I know I will find it where I can. I am being taken care of.

I was given a lovely gift on Saturday morning, because of my silence. The Omega morning meditations are held in a building called the Sanctuary, a really lovely space with wood and stone and several pools. I was leaving my shoes and my pack when I noticed one of the pools, which had fountain spraying up and coming down in little waterfalls, like mini-drinking fountains. And in fact, because I was quiet and calm, I noticed a hummingbird fluttering underneath one of those fountains, drinking. I moved and she flew away and sat on a branch, and then she flew away entirely. But the image stayed with me all day, a gift, a reminder to slow down and enjoy the scenery.

It was great being with my mother over the weekend. When I said, as we were almost there, oh, we should talk about how we are going to be this weekend, she said, we're going to be independent, and that's what we did. One moment really stands out: I was looking for her in the café and a woman I didn't know said, your mother already left. I cracked up! How did she know she was my mother, and I was looking for her! When I told that story later at a meal, folks said they could totally see the resemblance, which never happened to me as a kid; my sisters used to tell me I was adopted because they looked so much alike and I looked so different. I was the youngest, and given the context of my family it was actually kind of yucky to hear.

I am thrilled my mother wanted to come, even though she didn't have any idea who Pema was at the time she registered. Not bad for an old broad of almost 80! July 8! She hits 80! Wow!

PS -- Pema is coming back to Omega next year on the first weekend in June and they are putting names on the wait list now. I recommend it if you are interested. It's an extraordinary opportunity.

Saturdays are hard

Jeesh, it takes a long time to clean a car -- the inside, I mean -- and we have two. That's the major chore I did yesterday. It was so humid I was dripping in just a few minutes and it took a couple of hours to carefully vacuum everything and wipe down all the dusty, grimy surfaces, clean all the winter gloves and old books out, stuff like that.

Saturdays I am often so tired I just want to veg out. When it rains during the week, as it did much of this week, I hope and pray it'll rain all weekend so I have a good excuse to stay inside and do chores. Once Dave finds work I have no idea how we will get everything done. And the conflict is that I should be outside enjoying this lovely place we live in, and Dave of course wants to get outside and have family time.

Chores to do: rebuild my iTunes song list and update all my music. My computer has crashed so much it's all screwed up, about 60 mg of music, which I gather is a lot. At one point I was trying to put all my CDs on my laptop, but if my computer is going to crash all the time, and until I get a Mac, maybe that's not the best idea.

Go through all the papers on my desk and sort and pitch. Clean my office/studio. Go through the papers in my kitchen office -- for some reason the WiFi signal in my office is so poor it can take quite awhile to send and receive email or get to a website, so I set up in the kitchen, and the papers accumulate there. It's not a good system, really. Also my office is so peaceful I really should be spending time out there. Hummm.... Solve the WiFi issues, which is more of a Dave task than me, unfortunately.

Clean something most weekends, and laundry, and cook, per usual. I try to clean the bathrooms every week and change the sheets every other. I think my sister thinks that's way too often, but I really love clean sheets, not to mention towels. The grim that accumulates in the daily use of the bathroom depresses me.

Then we have the other house chores, like putting all the plants outside some place and cleaning the garage and sorting through the camping gear and going through all the storage shelves in the basement and sorting stuff into save and pitch piles. And then take the to-pitch stuff, mostly clothes, some place.

And then what I really want to do is pick strawberries, or whatever might be in season. And hike, even though it's really hot. And borrow my colleague's canoe that's for sale and take it for a spin and see if we want to buy it. And find a new place to swim in this 90-degree humid weather.

And ride my bike. My new personal trainer, the awesome Pamela, wants me to do cardio daily, and the issue is how to build that into my life, especially on the weekends. Biking to work is awesome and one-stop shopping -- it takes me about as long to bike as it does to drive -- but I am not so dedicated as to do it even when it's pouring out. Thursday I rode to work, about three miles, then rode into Florence, about 5 miles? for a meeting, and then rode home, about three miles. That last ride was awesome because it was all downhill except for the last half mile or so.

And the air smells incredible, especially on the bike path. When I got home that night, about 7:30, I was struck by the incredible smell of the yard by the side of our house. Odors are a strong memory trigger, and smelling the deep lush green of the woods, the dirt, and the stream, I immediately flashed on getting out of the car when I was, say, camping, or vacationing some place in the woods. You get in the car in Park Slope and drive, drive, drive, maybe stopping at a rest stop to pee, and several hours later you get out of the car at your cabin or your camp site or your trail head and you can't believe the difference in the air. It's a different world. And now I live in that different world.

I went to the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York last weekend to hear Pema Chodron (that's the next post) and getting out of the car and walking around I was struck by how similar this environment is, rather than how different. I mean, I've been to Omega a couple of times before, when I lived in Brooklyn, and walking around the grounds I always felt that incredible sense the quiet beauty, the birds, the air, the incredible green of the trees and the grounds and the amazing flowers everywhere. Now I live in that. We don't personally have the grounds or the flowers in Northampton but lots of my neighbors do, and especially when I'm on my bike I get whiffs in the air as I pedal by. Lovely.

I really enjoyed Omega, but that visceral, physical difference was not part of this weekend's experience, and I think that threw me. My experience at Omega didn't seem as dramatic or extraordinary, even though I was hearing Pema all weekend. I think one thing that struck home was how Omega had really inspired me to change my life. I am now living closer to that serenity I found at Omega. That's kinda cool. You can change your life, should you choose to. I did.