Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Daily Bread

The past few days I've been feeling run down and lethargic when I get off work. All I want to do is change out of my uniform, lie down and eat snacks. Today at work I felt like my head was in a fog. (I finally know what people mean when they say that.) I feel like I'm barely functioning.

And I know the reason why: it's the food.

I've gone through a radical change in my diet since I've been here. I'm not talking about switching from being vegan to eating a little meat. There was no being 100% vegan while living in a tiny town in West Texas. Every salad has some cheese and probably some meat on it. Fine. I let that slide. (And had some brisket and some good cheese here and there, if we're being honest.)

I'm talking about switching from eating healthy, whole foods, mostly organic, mostly plant-based, to eating nothing but processed junk food.

Part of the deal of working here is that we get a place to live and three meals a day. Unfortunately, the meals (while lovingly prepared by my wonderful coworkers) are of the lowest quality ingredients and mass produced for 250+ employees.

What I'm eating now is probably no different than how I ate in high school and college. It's no different than how most of America eats. My question is, how in the world does America function? How in the world are we the most prosperous nation on earth when we eat this garbage? (By garbage, I mean food with absolutely no nutritional value whatsoever.) And how much more prosperous would we be if we actually ate food that made us feel good and function properly?

Today's lunch menu: corn dogs, tater tots, hot dogs, some kind of beef soup, and the salad bar. What could be wrong with the salad bar, you might ask? Iceburg lettuce so translucent you can almost see through it. Sometimes there are some spinach leaves sprinkled in, but I can guarantee you that spinach was grown on a factory farm a long time ago a long way from here and was probably hosed down with pesticides along the way. You couldn't make a meal of a salad here and get full, or get all of the nutrients you need, day in and day out.

I didn't go to supper today. Instead I had an apple and almond butter in my room (THANK YOU MICKEY!!) Last night's supper was fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, the kind of mixed veggies that come from a can (peas, corn and something resembling green beans) and brownies. Sounds like a decent meal, right? But is that the type of food you would want to eat every night for optimal health? And don't get me started on breakfast. Powdered eggs, bacon and, the one thing I would eat: lumpy dry oatmeal. (Not steel cut.) With some canned fruit on the side.

I hadn't eaten candy in years... unless we're talking about high-quality dark chocolate. I never buy candy bars for myself...but here it's everywhere and I have re-developed a taste for it even as I can feel the detrimental effects it has on my body and my mind. And junk food really is addictive. It's designed to be that way. Once I switched to a plant-based diet 2 years ago, I never wanted to eat so much sugar-laden processed food as I do now, but once you start, it's hard to tell your body and mind to stop unless you overhaul your diet with healthy foods and lose the taste for processed foods again.

I've learned a lot from these new eating habits. The most important thing I've learned is that my body really does feel and work best when I'm eating whole, organic, plant-based foods. It's a night and day difference. I've also learned empathy for people who do have to eat this type of food their whole lives. No wonder kids and adults are obese, no wonder kids have problems paying attention in school, no wonder adults at younger and younger ages are getting cancer, diabetes and dementia. In so many ways our country is rich, but in some ways we are also poor.

For those of you who do have access to a grocery store (for me the nearest real one is about 90 miles away and I don't have a car), and to a refrigerator and a kitchen: stock it with fruits and veggies...and some (ethically sourced) meat too if that's your thing, and cook yourself a good nutritious meal. Observe the effects on your body and mind. Bringing conscious awareness to how we feel after we eat is the best way I know to make healthy choices.

As for me? I'm going to try to supplement my nutrition with greens powder, vitamins and fresh fruits and veggies when they're available. I'm also not going to stress about what all this junk food might do to my body and my skin because there's nothing I can do about it anyway. Four months of bad eating isn't going to create an irreversible long-term health problem...I hope. I will try to enjoy the junk food binge while I can...and will do the mother of all detoxes when I get back.

Bon appetit!

Monday, June 9, 2014


I've been thinking a lot lately about the theory of non-attachment. The idea is to release your hold on things that you think you need or that you think define you and examine what remains. 

Working toward non- attachment can apply to a lot of things. Some of them include: 

A particular outcome
A story that spins around - and around - and around in your head, making you think that's who you are
An identity (the smart one, the shy one, the good girl, the wild one, the career woman, the misfit, insert others here)
Material possessions 
An ailment (maybe you, or maybe someone you know, has a strong attachment to identifying themselves with an illness or physical problem. They bring it up all the time and cling to it as if that's what makes them special instead of knowing the deep dark secret that they're already special whether or not they celebrate whatever they think is wrong with them)
A job
An escape
Relationships (this doesn't mean you should let go of your relationships. It means detach from the idea that your relationship to a particular person defines you) 

Once you detach, what remains?
Maybe therein lies the answer to a great cosmic mystery. The higher self? Pure love? Divine light? 

A thought: what you think you need is what holds you back.

I am not:
My job
My bank account
My degrees
My divorce 
My passport stamps
My hair/body/image
My stories of woe
My stories of triumph
My scars

I am:
A child of God
A divine blessing
The universe experiencing itself
Made of stars *

*look it up. It's amazing.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Messages from the Universe

The first page of my journal, dated last fall, contains a message I believed I had received from the universe:

buckwheat groats, chia seeds, and hemp seed cereal

Why, you must be thinking, would that be a message from the universe? Of all the things to transmit, why cereal? I don't know why. All I know is, the universe spoke and I was listening. The message wasn't that I needed to buy cereal, it was that I was on the right path. This was shortly before I left for Bali.

I used to believe that if the universe spoke, it would be some sort of grand gesture about a monumental life changing event. Should I go to that college/job/relationship? If so, show me a burning bush or some sky writing or something. I thought that such messages would only come about during those pivotal moments, and I was kind of disappointed never to get one.

Now I believe differently. And in the past week I've seen enough strange, subtle signs in the form of the simplest of objects, including but not limited to:

- a bathrobe
- not one, not two, but three new calendars

Who would have ever thought that such ordinary, everyday objects would symbolize a deeper meaning, a synchronicity, an answered prayer? Not me.

But during the past year, I have learned a valuable lesson about letting go and receiving. Letting go of the illusion of control and instead being receptive to messages from the divine and my inner voice. Letting go of thoughts, places, jobs, and people that do not serve me. (I don't mean serve in the sense of "cater to," I mean it in the sense of "being good for my soul.") At first I was terrified. I used to plan EVERYthing ...but when I really did some self examination and soul searching, I realized I was miserable even with all of the things I always thought I would need to be happy. My yoga training taught me how to follow my heart, and it told me how to trust the universe, which I suppose is another name for God.

So, even though I was afraid, I took a step away from things that were bad for me, even though I had thought they were the things that made me secure. I didn't know what I was walking toward, but hoped and trusted that if I showed I had faith, good things would happen eventually. I didn't like twisting in the wind, not knowing when I'd find another job, where I'd live or how I'd move forward in other areas of my life. But I allowed myself to just trust. And wait. And watch the birds chase each other and the flowers bloom.

And beautiful things happened.  Friendships blossomed. My health improved. Even on days that felt like the worst of my life, I learned more about who I am, what I truly want, and how much strength I have. And I consciously tried to sit with my feelings, notice them, but try not to attach to them and let them define me, and in so doing, I believe I tuned in just a tiny bit closer with nature and with God in a way that has made me a tiny bit more aware and present in each moment. That, in turn, has made it easier to sense and receive messages from the universe, aka nudges from God.

I may never get some clear answer from the sky about where I'm going next or what I should be doing next. I think those answers will come from deep inside of me. But when I put a simple, tiny wish out into the universe and it's answered in ways I can't ignore, I know that means that if the small, insignificant things (like a bathrobe) are taken care of, then the bigger, heartfelt things are in God's hands too.

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these."

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Things I Miss

I've lived in the wilderness for about 3 weeks now and reality is starting to sink in:

There's nowhere to get a pedicure.

At first I was in denial. After all, I'm still in the US, and even though I'm in the wilderness, I live on a resort with a lot of modern conveniences. I have a delicious, custom made Eskimo Kiss mocha every morning (soy, 1/2 the white chocolate, no drizzle). This has lulled me into a false sense of complacency about my situation.

I thought there must be a nail salon in Talkeetna. I pushed my way into the general store, asked a lady stocking the fridge where to go for a mani/pedi, and the look on her face after I asked was not encouraging.

She looked at another lady, and that person said, well, there is a place at the end of the spur road. I asked if that was within walking distance. She said no, it would be a pretty far walk. I said, that would defeat the purpose of my pedicure, then wouldn't it?

I did manage to buy a jar of Nutella that wasn't too horribly marked up at the general store, thus it wasn't a complete loss.

So, once I came to grips with the idea that I'm roughing it and will be for the next few months, I decided I would have to do the unthinkable and paint my own toenails. One problem: there is no place to buy nail polish. No CVS. No Walgreens. Not even a lousy dollar store.

How do people survive like this??

I have these faint, lingering memories of what it was like to be in a mall. The bright, shiny things available for purchase. The smell of new clothes mingling with hot buttered pretzels and maybe even the whiff of coffee from a Starbucks. I can't even think about Teavana...the memories of hundreds of loose-leaf teas for the tasting are too painful. Aahhhh. Right now I'd even settle for stepping foot inside a Wal Mart, just to see all of the things, to hold them and touch them. It's not that I want to buy lots of things, I just miss knowing that I could if I wanted to.

I confessed to one of my friends that I miss the smell of a mall. She said, we're only two and a half weeks in, pace yourself.


Friday, May 16, 2014


Watching people on vacation is so interesting.

Some people are lost in their phones, not present. Some people are harried and rushed and over-scheduled. Some sit down, munching on an ice cream cone and take in the view with a huge smile on their face. (I like that guy.) Some can do nothing but rant about every little thing. I wonder if that guy has ever truly enjoyed a day in his entire life. Some, like a 70 year old man, learn how to make s'mores for the first time ever. He was told how to set up his graham cracker, place a chocolate square on top of it, put the marshmallows into the fire, then squeeze the marshmallows in between the crackers. I had as much fun watching as he did making his s'more.

I also watched this today:

Watching the river is fun...till a spider crawls up your leg.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Welcome to Week 2!

It's the last day before the lodge opens! It feels like I've been here much longer than a week because the days have been so full. I can't even imagine how much crazier it's going to get once guests start showing up by the busload.

Yesterday I got to go on a staff tour of Talkeetna, the closest town to the lodge at about an hour away, which is notable for a variety of reasons including being the starting off point for those climbing Mt. McKinley, a training ground for Iditarod dogs, the town that the town in Northern Exposure was based upon...and quite possibly the craziest place I have ever been.

I can't really explain exactly why it's so crazy, but maybe this picture of me with the mayor will help give you a clue:

Craziness aside, words can't even describe how nice it was to get out of the lodge for a few hours into something that vaguely resembles civilization. I don't think I fully appreciated before I got here how truly isolated I would be from modern conveniences like, say, a grocery store. I went to the general store in Talkeetna and it was stocked with groceries purchased at a Safeway (probably in Anchorage) and marked up at exorbitant rates. A tub of mixed nuts cost $15. The store had a lot of things, but not many of the same thing, and a lot of the merchandise was covered in dust. I did indulge in one splurge: I bought two containers of berries -- raspberries and blueberries. Even though they were expensive, even though I have no fridge in my room to keep them cold...I had to have them. They were sooo good and such a nice treat on the bus ride home and this morning in my oatmeal. The only fruit they serve in the employee cafeteria in the morning is canned peaches and pineapple swimming in artificial juices...bleck!

I also got to have a wonderful meal at the Denali Brewing Company. It was so nice to have real, quality food and not the mass-produced stuff they serve in our cafeteria. My roommie and I had craft-brewed beers and although I really wanted to try the "I Can See Russia" burger, I went with a hummus and veggie sandwich with a cup of roasted red pepper soup.

the roommie and I enjoying some sunshine and cold ones at the Denali Brewing Co.

As lodge employees, we got to enjoy many discounts in Talkeetna at the restaurants and gift shops, plus I got a free cookie at the Talkeetna Road House. I will definitely be recommending those cookies to my guests!

Today I got more fun freebies at the lodge. I got to be a guinea pig for the Grizzly Bar, one of the lodge's restaurants. That means I got a delicious free lunch.

I went with a seared salmon salad (delicious!) and a white chocolate raspberry cheesecake (perfection!)

Today was also dress rehearsal day plus my first day to really get cracking at my special duties as a roomer--the person who assigns people to their rooms-- and let me tell you that doing this at a place with 22 guest buildings and 460 rooms is far more complicated than I realized! I also feel that I wield enormous power as I decide who gets the primo rooms. I was stress-eating Starburst by the handful, and it's only day 1 of this job. I'm going to need to pace myself. At least I have some government oversight.

Another perk to this day was that the gift shop opened up for employees. I purchased the following:
Above-the-knee moose socks (perfect for those cold summer nights), a mug (so the food and beverage people won't get mad at me--again--for taking a mug out of the cafeteria), cute postcards, glacier pearl earrings that match my uniform, and a keychain with an igloo, forget-me-not (state flower), and the Alaska state flag on it so I won't lose my room key.

Bye from Alaska!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Hi from Alaska!

Welcome to my first blog post from Alaska!

I meant to write sooner, but due to so many factors like getting settled in, all day trainings, not being able to figure out the wireless in my room, my body still thinking it's in Texas and being exhausted all the time, I just haven't felt like blogging. So let me catch you up.

First, YES, Alaska is beautiful. Even though there's still patches of snow on the ground and the trees look dead and I'm in the middle of not so much a lodge as a resort (think wilderness Disney) ... it's gorgeous. The mountain view is breathtaking. You can't help but be happy when you look at it. The air is so fresh and crisp and smells faintly of pine. It doesn't get dark till after 10:30 and next month it will be later than that.

Second, on a human level, this experience has been so enriching already. You know the people that we usually think are invisible? The maids, the busboys, the dishwashers, the fry cooks, the servers, yes, *cough*, even the front desk clerks. I'm not proud to say I've gone through most of my whole life not giving any of these people a second glance, much less a second thought. It's almost like when you see them, they're not even there. Well now that's changed. Here, when I'm by myself thousands of miles away from home, they're my neighbors, my coworkers, and my friends. I haven't met a single unfriendly person since I've been here and it's been an important lesson in looking past someone's title to their beautiful spirit underneath.

One of the first people I met as we were waiting for the shuttle in Anchorage to take us to our resort was a middle aged man who will be working the early shift as a cook...the guy who makes your scrambled eggs and bacon in the morning. He's so nice and always has a friendly word when he sees me -- except for the day I wore my A&M sweatshirt, but that's another story.

I love the servers. They're cool and outgoing and have such interesting backstories coupled with an edgy attitude.

But there's a tie for the most adorable people I've met here so far: first up is the Jersey couple, a ridiculously good looking pair, probably in their early 20s, who are here on their first big adventure. The male of the couple has an enthusiasm that's contagious, is just so happy to be alive, and is nice to every single person he meets. The female of the pair is much more shy but every bit as sweet. Their jobs? To strip linens off the beds after guests leave. Glamorous? No. But it doesn't stand in their way of having a good time no matter where they are.

Also in the running for the most adorable pair isn't a couple in the romantic sense, but a pair of young guys, also in their early 20's, who I met this morning on the walk to breakfast. I had stopped to take a picture and they fell in step beside me, also with huge grins on their faces, and we started talking. They're from Bulgaria, college students here on an exchange program, and seemed just so happy to be alive. Their jobs? Dishwashers. Probably the dirtiest, crappiest, most thankless jobs in a restaurant, yet they just radiated enthusiasm and excitement.

Then there's me and my fellow front desk friends. Today we were issued our uniforms. Who would have ever thought I'd be wearing a hotel services uniform??? Not me! But when the four of us ladies were in the bathroom trying them on and laughing hysterically because of how we looked and how we all wanted to tie our scarves in different--and not company approved--ways, it was once again a reminder that you can have fun no matter what your job is or what you're doing as long as you have the right attitude.

If you're wondering, I had tied my scarf in a huge bow around my neck.

This was my boss's reaction when she saw it:
Her: You look so...
Me: Dapper?
Her: Clownish.

And then we all got free ice cream from the espresso stand. :)

Friday, May 2, 2014

Thank you

Today is the day of my last yoga class before I leave for Alaska for four months. I'm filled with so many emotions: I'm nervous, excited, scared, sad to leave and most of all overwhelmingly grateful.

So much has happened in my life in the four months since I started teaching yoga classes in Sonora.

- I fulfilled my dream of starting a yoga business and had a grand opening launch party that was everything I hoped it would be and more. (Many thanks to Debra, one of the most generous souls I know, and my parents for helping set everything up, then take it down 2 days later when we realized we'd need a bigger space.)

- I reconnected with friends I didn't even know I had. I didn't really expect to have much of a social life when I moved back to Sonora but have been so happy to have friends to go to lunch with, have margaritas with, go walking with, go to campaign rallies with (!), co-host nutrition and yoga seminars with, and do big city shopping in San Angelo with. (Target, nails, HEB, Starbucks -- in that order.)

- I replaced bad memories with good ones. It's kind of an open secret I didn't always have a great experience growing up here. For too long I let bad memories haunt me and define the way I viewed this town. Now, instead of thinking of how much I hated living here (let's not count how many years ago, but it was more than a decade) I feel how lucky I am to have this cocoon of a small town to live in. I love the slower pace of life compared to the city, I like walking on Eaton hill and feeling sunshine, seeing flowers and hearing the birds, and I like seeing friendly, familiar faces wherever I go.

I also love the super nachos at the Steakhouse (no meat, jalepenos on the side).

- There have been other changes too, but I wanted this post to be about YOU, the people I am honored to call my students, and not me, so we can talk about the other stuff over a cup of coffee or glass of wine later. :)

What I want to say is this:

Whether you came to one class or twenty classes, you made my dream of being a yoga teacher come true. I couldn't have done it without you. I finally know what it feels like to have a job that is so much fun and so gratifying it doesn't feel like work.

I've seen your practices blossom and grow from the first day you stepped on the mat to weeks later when you were steady and solid and knowing what you were doing! The credit for that goes to YOU, for showing up to your mat even when it was hard, being present, and pushing yourself.

Remember this: any sense of peace or well-being you may have felt in yoga class was in you all along and is still with just have to be still and present, and you can tap into it anytime you want.

And this: we call it a yoga practice, not a yoga perfect. Even if you can't do a certain pose as well as you wish you could - yet- ...keep at it. Yoga is not a competition with anyone else or even with yourself. You bring what you have to your mat, do your practice, and all is coming.

And finally this: My all-time favorite song for savasana. Listen to this any time you need a little peace and relaxation. ~bring me a higher love~

Thank you all for sharing your practice with me.


Monday, December 16, 2013

In which Dad and I discuss Eastern vs Western Spirituality

As some of you know, my dad is a preacher, and I'd venture to say a pretty good one. Ever since I was little sitting in the 3rd or 4th pew in the church on Sundays, it always made my ears perk up a little when I heard my name mentioned in a sermon. Same thing happened this morning when I read my dad's most recent sermon about sprituality which partially drew on a comment I made about Bali being the most spritual place in the world. (Disclaimer: I've never been to Jerusalem. I hear that place is pretty deep too.)

I think Dad got a lot of things right in that sermon, but I also believe he made a couple of mischaracterizations of Eastern spirituality. In the grand scheme of things, what does it matter if those views stand un-debated? Probably none. But Dad and I like to talk theology, and it IS my last morning in Bali, I've got a strong cup of coffee coming, so why not use this time to sum up a little of my experience with spirituality over here? (I say that even as I hear the voice of one of my teachers saying not to argue with people.)

First of all, Dad you are absolutely correct when you say (I'm paraphrasing) that you don't have to be some kind of zen master or nun to be spiritual. A member of PETA isn't necessarily more spiritual than a cattle rancher. And if the Alamo is where you get closer to God, then by all means continue cultivating that connection. That's the cool thing about what I've learned about what we're calling Eastern spirituality. It's flexible. It's also non-comptetitive. It doesn't require anyone to say, hey look, my religion is better than yours so you need to convert! You can be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc, and still incorporate wisdom from the East to help you get closer to God.

When I said Bali was the most spiritual place on Earth, I didn't mean it was the most tranquil. In fact, Ubud, the town I lived in for 4 weeks, is anything but. You have to constantly look where you're walking because the sidewalks are cracked, have huge gaps in them, and sometimes move when you put your weight on them. There is constant noise. There is constant shouting from men sitting on sidewalks asking if you want a taxi ride, and if not today, maybe tomorrow? I got to my practice space at 6:15 every morning. By about 6:45, there was the grinding sound of a buzz saw slicing through tiles on the construction site right next door. There was also lots of hammering, and at one time what sounded like a brawl. There is also an elementary school next door. By about 8 am we could hear the sound of children at recess. A sweet sound, but not a peaceful one. There was one afternoon where those darling children were setting off firecrackers. I felt like I was on the set of Steel Magnolias when they were blasting birds out of the trees. Boom! Boom! KA-BOOM! Still, we carried on. Even though some of those sounds were annoying at the time, I am actually grateful that I got to practice meditation and yoga in those conditions, because if you can bring your mind to tranquility next to a buzz saw, than that must mean you're getting somewhere. It also shows that we spiritual seekers were very much in the world, not separated from it on some high hill. As one of my teachers jokingly said as the construction clanged on and as the smoke from burning trash permeated the studio, "We shall not let our meditation interfere with their work."

So why is Bali so spiritual? There isn't just one reason I can put my finger on. There are many reasons, and as Dad said, some have washed into the land over centuries from a culture that has a deep appreciation for the seen and unseen. Part of it is the sense of devotion of the people here. They make offerings to put outside their door, and outside every single hotel room too, every day, which they light with incense. These are an offering to their Hindu gods. It takes a lot of time to make these, and they do it every single day. Even though I don't believe the same way as most of the people here regarding their gods, I can't help but admire the time, love and effort they put into practicing their religion.

Another thing is that spirituality seems to be on the forefront of everyone's mind, and I don't just mean for us Western yogis. I mean everyone. I'd take a cab ride somewhere and 2 minutes in, the driver was talking to me about God. I walked by the same restaurant every day, and one day the manager asked me to come in for a cup of tea so he could explain to me more about Balinese beliefs. This was not in some pitch to convert me. This was just a genuine desire to share his views with someone who might be curious.

Another part is the deep connection with nature here. I'm not a huge fan of nature because I have found that nature can bite. But when you're on an island in the tropics, nature is all around you, even when you're inside. I've had a gecko for a roommate for at least 2 weeks. When the rains come, and when there's a rice field right outside your door, you can see the visible effects of rainwater on the agriculture. And the Balinese are completely in tune with the lunar cycles. They celebrate the full moon. They celebrate the new moon. And they seem so excited about it, as if this is something that DOESN'T happen every single month. And I think that's pretty cool. I can rarely see the moon from my house in Virginia, and there's no way I could see stars. So when I'm in a place where the moon is celebrated, it reminds me of how my ancestors might have felt when they needed that light to guide them on cattle drives or maybe on their journeys from the Old World to the New. You can't help but feel that there's something bigger than ourselves out there, and that He loves us.

The idea that practitioners of Eastern spirituality are trying to transcend into nothingness is a mischaracterization. Case in point: I'm at the tail end of a lifechanging spiritual journey where I'm the calmest, fullest and happiest I can remember being in a long time, yet I've still worked up the gumption to debate with my dad on a blog. Ommmmmmmm.

Back to the point, I would say that much like practitioners of religion in the West, Eastern followers are trying to get closer to God. When one is closer to God, perhaps one is more tranquil, less stressed, and less bothered by ordinary, mundane distractions. It does not mean that they all sit apart from the world in a blissed out state of complete detachment, though I have heard that some do, much like some Christian nuns or monks. I'm sure the Hindus here would love for someone in the West to come explain to them the values of hard work and the importance of being in the world. To do so, you'd need to roll up your pants to the knees, take off your shoes and wade into knee deep mud to talk to them as they work in the rice paddies, bending over each individual stalk of rice, then moving to the next, for hours at a time. I don't think they get to come home at 6 pm to have a beer, so you'd need to catch them while they're on the job. Or maybe you can chat with someone at such a cushy profession as a manicurist or massage therapist. Must be nice to get to sit inside a room for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week catering to flighty tourists who have more to spend on their hair, nails, and clothes in a day than that woman makes in a month. But yes, someone please tell her how hard we work in the States. She'd probably listen with a polite smile. Or you can talk to my driver, Wayan, about the virtues of labor. He'd love to hear your ideas because he's full of his own, including driving, opening a pork rib restaurant, and raising ducks, so that he can scrape together the money to send his oldest daughter to school to be a teacher. Wayan thinks teaching is the noblest of all professions, and he desperately wanted to be a teacher himself but his family didn't have the money to send him to college. He is determined to work hard enough so that his now 10-year-old will get that opportunity.

It has been my experience here that people take their spiritual and religious beliefs far more seriously than we do in the West. It's interesting the effects that a belief in karma have on this island. (Which brings me to another point. The Balinese most certainly understand both good and bad. In fact they have a stronger understanding of it than people anywhere else I've been, as characterized by the yin and yang symbol. Darkness and light. They know full well that both exist in the world. I'd probably garble their true understanding if I tried to explain it because it's jarring from my own belief system, so I'll leave it at that.)

Back to karma. The best explanation for this I heard is that there are actions you can take that bring you farther down your spiritual path, and actions you can take that set you back. Hard to argue with that, isn't it? My experience in this one month is, it's GREAT to be in a place where people actually believe this. They're so nice. So nice.

So if I had to pick a beef I had with Western spirituality in light of what I've learned this month, it's not that our teachings aren't good, it's that we do not take the teachings seriously. We bend them to conform to our cultural ideals, and then argue with and denigrate anyone whose views don't match ours, all in the name of so-called faith. Our country would look a lot different if we as a nation actually took the 10 commandments seriously. We wouldn't glorify wars and warfighters the way we do. We wouldn't be completely out of sorts about ensuring that poor people have health care. (Jesus gave health care to the poor, no?) We wouldn't work ourselves up into a materialistic frenzy from the beginning of November to the end of December in a misguided attempt to fill the hole in our hearts because that hole would already be filled with love and peace if we truly followed the path of Jesus. We would take much better care of the environment. Perhaps we'd even have a sense of perspective and a lot of compassion for people from other countries who are not as fortunate as us, instead of doing everything we can to keep them and their languages, foods, and values out.

I leave you with this image: A hot tropical island where you can get a sunburn in December and where Hindu temples and offerings are visible from every single vantage point. Yet in the beginning of December, every single hotel and shop puts out a Christmas tree. Some shops even play Christmas carols. A cynic might say they're just trying to lure in Western consumers. But I say that it's a sweet, charitable example of tolerance for others that we can learn from. These Eastern spiritualists aren't over here saying to turn away from your Christian beliefs and chant mantras on a hill with us. They are saying something more like, so you've found God too? Cool, man.


Dad's sermon:

Balanced Spirituality
Luke 3: 1-6

God’s work for today re-introduces us to the haunting message and mission and person of John the Baptist. The message - “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The mission – a call to the lonely stark isolation of the wilderness along the Jordan. The person – a rough, weird, harsh individual, in every sense an outsider. John is the opposite of what we consider to be appealing, and yet thousands of people trudged for many miles to hear John speak. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were so moved by John’s preaching that they accepted his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

I am moved to reflect upon the message, mission and person of John the Baptist in the context of a remark our daughter Andi made about her visit to the far side of the globe. She described Bali, an ancient land in Southeast Asia, as the most spiritual place in the world. That caused me to do some thinking about the place where I have been most spiritually moved during my limited and provincial time on earth. For me, that place is the Alamo. My sense is that there is an extreme contrast, not just of place, but of definitions of spirituality, bound up in our choices. I am guessing that Bali is a tranquil place, made holy by centuries of profound meditation. The Alamo is a battleground, a site marked by the bowel-loosening terror and animal rage of combat; a place of blood and powder smoke, cannon fire and snarled curses; ultimately a place of death, where the blood of brave men on both sides mingled and soaked into the stony soil within and around the old fortress.

Let us keep both of those contrasting places and visions of spirituality in mind as we reflect further upon the message of John the Baptist, “Prepare the way of the Lord… Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways leveled.” All of that sounds like hard labor with pick and shovel, crowbar and
spade; a lot of sweat and blisters. John’s imagery is not what we usually associate with spirituality. John’s message is about something muscular, dynamic, difference-making and earthy. Normally we are inclined to think that real spirituality is quiet, meditative, peaceful, somewhat above and unmoved by the world’s pain, tears, calluses, filth and sweat.

I realize that I am very much in the minority in this regard, but I personally do not believe that a pacifist is necessarily more spiritual than a combat infantryman who endures the sacrifices and rigors of war to protect his country and his squad mates. I do not believe that a card-carrying member of PETA is necessarily more spiritual than a rancher who raises livestock to help feed a hungry world. I do not believe that a nun who gets up at 4 in the morning to pray is necessarily more spiritual than a mom who gets up at 4 in the morning to comfort her crying baby.

All of which could represent nothing more than the bitter grumblings and biased opinions of a disgruntled redneck. But here’s the thing. The odd, earthy call of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord tips us off that the Messiah we are to prepare for does not fit conventional images of spirituality. Christians are agreed, or should be agreed, that Jesus of Nazareth is the model of true spirituality. For us, the example of Jesus supersedes all others. And the example of Jesus of Nazareth does not fit altogether neatly within modern suppositions of what spirituality is supposed to be.

On the one hand, Jesus is very much a man of deep contemplation and prayer. He frequently disappeared into the mountains to be alone with God. He entered into profound theological discussions with learned religious leaders in accord with ancient rabbinical custom. Most often He was addressed as “Rabbi”, or “Teacher.” And for the most part, Jesus was a pacifist, except for the day He made a whip out of rope and used it to physically drive the money-changers out of the Temple. Quiet, prayerful
contemplative, profound, pacifistic. That’s Jesus.
On the other hand, Jesus was a man who on most days worked from dawn until dark, healing, feeding the hungry, teaching and preaching among huge, swirling crowds of supplicants, onlookers and hecklers. Mark says there were lots of days when Jesus and the disciples didn’t have time to eat. Luke records a time when the crowds around Him were so rambunctious in their enthusiasm that the disciples put Him in a boat just off the lakeshore so He could speak to the people without being crushed by them. Some detractors once asked Jesus about His hectic, unspiritual-looking pace. He shrugged and replied, “My Father works, and I work.” The climax of Jesus life and ministry was His bloody, public execution on a wooden cross, condemned as a criminal.

It is not my intent to detract from or denigrate the noble spiritual traditions and practices of the ancient civilizations of the East; or of the tribal customs of Africa, Australia or our own Native American peoples. I would simply like to make room around the table of spirituality for our own cherished customs and practices of the Christian West. What characterizes our brand of spirituality is a restless, determined effort to change conditions which are unacceptable on God’s earth; to establish what is good and to combat what is evil. Eastern spirituality, if I understand it correctly, does not recognize the concepts of good and evil. The point of Eastern spirituality is to achieve a state of nothingness so that one transcends all of the petty concerns of life on earth. The epitome of Eastern spirituality is to walk across a bed of hot coals or along a sidewalk filled with diseased, starving persons with equal tranquility. For us, the call of spirituality would be to roll up sleeves and feed the hungry, tend the diseased, and even address the deeply-rooted social injustices which lead to so much illness and hunger.

What I’m laboring to say is that spirituality has gotten itself cloistered and separated from the joys and the work and the hurts of God’s world. But Jesus, our spiritual model, spent most of his earthly ministry engaged in the
joys and the work and the hurts of God’s world. Jesus taught that the first commandment is to love God with all your heart, and all your mind, and all your strength, and all your soul. Followers of Jesus since His time have regarded it as an acceptable outlet of spirituality to get dirty, sweaty, and back-sore in work which promotes God’s gracious purposes on the earth.

We ourselves are heirs of a Christian tradition called the Protestant work ethic. That ethic grows directly out of instructions from the Bible such as the teaching from John the Baptist – “Prepare the way of the Lord.” That tradition does not recognize a distinction between what is secular and what is spiritual. Our tradition teaches that all honest work is woven into the tapestry of God’s design for humanity and for His creation as a whole. We tend toward a spirituality that doesn’t mind getting some mud on its clothes while trying to boost the suffering world out of a ditch. Even more modest accomplishments of keeping a tidy home; building a straight, tight fence, or sharing a pleasant meal with neighbors fits within our understanding of what spirituality includes.

We have to admit, however, that the Western world, the culture we inhabit and which we have helped to form, has drifted from its spiritual roots. Many individuals in the Western world of our time do not see work as a means of preparing the way of the Lord; work is regarded simply as a means of making money, which is then used as a means of securing one’s own material comfort. We have to acknowledge that the Christmas season, a time meant to inspire our spirits, quite often drains and wearies our spirits. We have exchanged the world-embracing, world-redeeming message of our Christian heritage for the world-acquiring message of a godless society. We have forgotten that our Lord worked hard to help other people, to make this world a kinder, fairer, safer place, bearing witness to God’s love for the world. Our frenetic pace at Christmas is hard work to be sure, but it is work devoted to getting material possessions for persons who usually already have plenty of stuff. It is not work which prepares the way of the Lord, or which bears
witness to the Gospel truth that the Lord is with us.

I trust that I am much like you, approaching this Christmas season. I am looking for authentic ways to participate in preparing the way of the Lord. I am looking for ways to be more open to the Lord’s presence, so that I receive a measure of the joy, the hope, and the peace that comes from rightly celebrating our Lord’s birth. I am looking for ways to wake up on the morning of December 26th with a sense of goodwill and well-being, not with a nagging sense of emptiness and mild depression. What I’m looking for, guided by John’s preaching, is something I would call spiritual balance. I intend to try to achieve that balance by participating in work that benefits others and also by participating in worship through which I offer sincere praise to God. I intend to be active in caring activities which touch the lives of others in the world, and also in quiet prayer which connects my mortal self to eternal God in heaven. I intend to engage as deeply as I am able in precious occasions of fellowship with friends and with family, and also in some private moments of meditation and wonder at the amazing thing God has done in sending His Son to be born among us. What I hope for myself, I also hope for you, that each of us would be prepared in body, mind and soul, for the blessed and joyous coming of the Lord into our world. Amen.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Graduating Tomorrow

We graduate tomorrow. I can't believe that I am less than 12 hours away from being a certified yoga instructor! That makes me so giddy and happy and I think I'm as excited about this as I was about graduating from college. It feels like such a huge accomplishment that was years in the making and I'm optimistic about what lies ahead.

There are many things I will miss about being here in Bali. There were so many restaurants I was going to try and shops I was going to browse but somehow I didn't find time to do everything I wanted to. Time flies when you're in class 12 hours a day.

I'll miss the carefree feeling of walking to school or to some restaurant with my friends, especially my friend from Switzerland. I'll miss the deep conversations and even the shallow conversations about life, philosophy, Sanskrit, chakras, the mula bandha, karma, raw food vs. ayurvedic nutrition and how we feel in certain postures, among many other things. I'll miss looking at the beautiful rice fields every day. I'll miss the little geckos on all the walls. I'll miss going to breakfast every morning with my friends who are staying at the same hotel. Even though by the time breakfast rolls around we're usually so tired from our morning asana practice that we collapse in a heap on the breakfast benches, it's nice to have that familiarity and companionship. I'll miss being in such a supportive environment where it's ok to burst into tears in the middle of class for a reason that's explainable only to you but which everyone understands. Or to stifle laughter in the middle of class when the drill seargent-esque instructor yelled at someone for squishing an ant on her mat. I'll miss the break times when I'd go to a space by myself to practice a challenging posture only to have someone come up to me and help guide me through and and tell me I am going to get there soon. I'll miss being in a room full of people from all different places around the world who all understand each other so well because we know we are one.

There are some things I won't miss. Springing out of bed at 5:30 am, six days a week tops that list. Actually it went from springing (week 1) to plodding (week 2) to dragging (week 3) to flopping (week 4). I also won't miss sitting on the floor all day, or the unnecessary drama that has polluted our group this past week. (Yes, even yogis have issues. Or, as the joke goes, yogis have the most issues out of anyone and that's why we do yoga.) I won't miss the salamanders. I won't miss having to brush my teeth with bottled water. And on that note, I would kill (ok, maybe not kill, unless it was an ant) for a soak in a nice hot bath. It's liberating to wear yoga pants and no makeup every day, but it would be nice to not have my pants stuck to me with sweat by 8:00 am and remain that way for the rest of the day, and to be able to put on just a little makeup in the evening without it dripping off in 5 minutes.

My heart and my head are so full of the many lessons I've learned here. This training has been one of the highlights of my life.