Friday, December 31, 2010

Riding the mean city streets

I think this video that I filmed today while riding in an auto rickshaw across Bangalore helps us better appreciate why a lifestyle dependent on fossil fuels is unsustainable AND inhumane. 

Today the population of India is about 1.15 BILLION people.  That's almost 4 times the population of the U.S.A. living in a space about 1/3 the size of the continental United States, if you can imagine that.  One out of every six humans on our planet is an Indian.

With a middle class of nearly 400 million, car sales are sky rocketing in India.  Everyone wants to "live like an American" and have a car (or two).  Yet, given the world's current trends in consumption, waste and oil usage this just isn't possible (or desirable).  To do so, we'd need five more planets' worth of resources.  Living this way is just not sustainable (for us or anyone).

Despite this, studies suggest that by 2050, India is expected to top the world in car volumes with approximately 611 million vehicles.  Annually, Indians buy nearly 10 million motorcycles. Only God knows how many auto rickshaws zip through the city streets!

Gandhi once said, "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed."

I'm with Gandhi on this one.  So let's think about small ways we can live a life more sustainable and humane.  HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!  Drive safely and be kind to pedestrians!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Saving Humanity, one heap of compost at a time

So... in four days I will become a Sadhu.
 Usually one thinks of this when one pictures a Hindu Sadhu:
This sadhu, sitting alongside the Ganges River, appears to us as a half-naked Hindu holy man smeared in ash and red-eyed from too much ganga (marijuana).  But this isn’t the only way to be a sadhu.  And while this particular sadhu’s path is authentic for him (and may sound exotic and exciting to us) it is not, by any means, the only way to be a good sadhu.  I know my mother, for one, will be happy to learn that when I say I am becoming a Sadhu I am not transforming myself into the image above!

To be a sadhu, simply put, is to be practitioner of Sadhana.  Sadhana is spiritual practice. It focuses on accomplishing ones spiritual goals whatever they may be.  For some sadhus the ultimate goal is reunion with the Divine.  I say reunion because Hindus believe we’re already ‘there’, so we just have to realize it, or actually, remember it.  In this belief system, the duality of spirit and world is false.  The separation of the self/soul (atman) from the cosmic divine (Brahman) is an illusion.  This illusion (Maya) keeps us from realizing we are already one with God.    Isn’t that a nice thought?  We’re already perfect and we just have to ‘wake up’ to the fact.  So different than the Original Sin concept foisted upon the Judeo-Christian sects over the last 2000 years.  So much nicer!  Well Hinduism is about 10,000 years older and has, collectively, been practiced by a lot more people.  That should give it some street cred., right? 

As a person who believes in reincarnation, I believe we don’t go to heaven or hell when we die; our energies continue, in other forms, and possibly our energies get wrapped up in a new set of human skin to meet other skin-ensconced energies to continue the journey.  I don’t know how I feel about Karma (the sum total of all our positive and negative acts in this life) and its consequences but I do know that I feel there is a cosmic harmony and balance.  Disruption of the balance for long periods of time may cause suffering and a sense of loss.  Efforts to maintain the balance keep the cosmos in harmony.  Always the universe is unfolding as it should – striving to maintain the balance.  We can help it along, or not, that can have different outcomes of us here (or maybe later in the next time around).  Having said that, I’m trying to figure out what my spiritual goal is – to end the exhausting cycle of birth and rebirth?  This is true of most sadhus. Union with the Cosmic Divine (same thing, only sounds more ambitious)? Or simply a greater understanding of what it means to be, my self, a sacred being? 

I think for this trip I’m going to stick to what is behind curtain #3.  It feels real and manageable.  I do want to know my spiritual self better.  I do want to figure out what that means and if that will feel good.  I  want to live life to its fullest and not just inhabit a series of mechanical rituals enacted daily in order to be fed and clothed.  I want to practice Sadhana because I believe there is something beyond the routine, beyond the material, beyond the guine-pig tread mill of buy-consume-shed-waste and die.  There is something bigger than me out there and, most interestingly, I am starting to believe it isn’t out there… it is in me. I’m a part of it.  It is me! 

I am going to Sadhana Forest in four days to better know my authentic and sacred self.  So, that makes me a sadhu.  A sadhu is someone who follows a particular spiritual path in search of greater understanding of, or union with, the Divine.  Sounds like a tall order, huh?  Well, yes and no. Sadhus may take several paths in the hopes of realizing their spiritual goals. And any step along the path of Sadhana is a step of spiritual upliftment. 

What does that look like you ask?  For some, this might be a repeated action (focused study and examination) accompanied by reflection (known as Kriya).  Yoga is a great example of this.  Here I mean real yoga – in its various forms -- combining mindfulness, meditation and physical devotion to the Divine. Not the mindless aerobic work-out sans spiritual reflection that you find in one too many fitness gyms across America.  When yoga is an act of discipline meant to obtain a new level of spiritual liberation than you have Sadhana.  A Sadhu and a Yogini are one in the same here.  Lucky for me, just because I have  not mastered that funky posture where you wrap your legs over your shoulders and stand on your hands, I am not disqualified from being a Sadhu.  However, since I am not a very regular (or reflective) yogini I cannot claim sadhu status through my yoga kriya.  Still, I love yoga and when I do it my chubby stubby little body (which impresses so few here on this terrestrial plane) feels like a galactic inspiration.  I hope to find time to do yoga when I’m in the woods.  I am excited that two of my fellow pilgrims into Sadhana Forest, Chris and Karolyn, are regular practitioners.  Perhaps together we’ll do a Sadhana of this kind and know our sacred selves a bit better from taking this path. 
My favorite pose.  Makes me feel STRONG and GORGEOUS
Another path (or way of exertion towards a spiritual goal) for the Sadhu may be reading spiritual books or chanting.   I’ve been known to dabble in both of these in my day.  Hare Krishnas are the most famous in the West for their devotion to God via the recitation of the names of the deity Krishna.  Their singing and tambourine playing (especially in public parks) has won them a popular sadhu position in the pantheon of sadhus, if not a little ribbing along the way.  For someone who has chanted with the Hare Krishna devotees and loved it, I can tell you it is not only exhilarating (if done in the right context and frame of mind) it IS spiritually uplifting.   Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. 

All these forms of Sadhana (yoga, meditation, spiritual reading, chanting) fall under the Niskam Sadhana category (Nis = without, Kam = desire).  They are individualistic and are not meant to help others achieve spiritual upliftment.  This is perfectly acceptable and may be practiced with non-judgement and compassion for the self.  As added bonus, these acts are said to help you achieve spiritual progress, to increase your faith and to increase your talmal or DESIRE FOR GOD. In this case, the term 'desire' has a different translation than above... Kam is desire related to love, lust and the flesh. Talmal expresses desire of a very different kind, almost a yearning for God. Fascinating concept,  that last one, I think.  In the West, we don’t often think about cultivating desire for the Divine.  We don’t praise people or give them greater honor when we see their talmal made manifest.  We don't advertise our striving for talmal.  For us, you've either got it or you don’t and it seems to be no one else's business. 

Sometimes we may poke fun of people who jump around with too much talmal  (that’s how the Quakers got their name) and other times we shun those talmal filled people who tout their talmalness door-to-door (have you ever ignored the door bell when you knew it was a Jehovah Witness ringing)?  We in the post-Enlightenment West are so rational and so secular that we've grown embarrassed talking about talmal in public.  But what if we think about God as simply LOVE and then talk about a desire for LOVE – then it doesn't seem so weird or fanatical or discomforting to us.  If reading Thoreau’s book Walden or reading one of Thoreau’s favorite writings, The Bhagavd Gita, increases my desire to love and be loved, well then okay!  Another act of Sadhana is in the bag.  My sadhu self stands up tall, proud and accounted for.

Sadhana can also be done by a group for the society at large (Samasti Sadhana).  This path really excites my inner Sadhu like crazy.  Heck, that’s why I’ve flown thousands of miles around the globe and am meeting a group of my students in the woods.  We are here to get dirty!  We are here to do some planetary sweat equity !

Samasti Sadhana is done collectively for the spiritual progress of entire humanity.  That's the work that I'm up to next week.  And people wonder why I guffaw when they say “Have fun on vacation in India!”  Working for the spiritual progress of humanity may at first seem like an overly ambitious agenda, but Hinduism gives you some great tools to work with... and then the task isn’t really so overwhelming if you break it down.  Every step on the journey counts! So when I go into the woods to live with my fellow sadhus next week, I go to make mulch, to compost our waste (food and excrement), to gather the rich resources we constantly ‘throw away’ back home, to build soil, to enrich the earth, to feed the trees and nourish the garden – I am doing my Samasti Sadhana, I am participating in saving humanity.  No small potatoes, to use a vegan idiom.  Okay, probably the brisket-loving Irish used this idiom before vegans did but I like to think of my metaphors and allusions propping up my new vegan world view. 

Examples of Samasti Sadhana (for collective spiritual uplift) include partaking in satsangs (spiritual gatherings focused on devotional speech and chanting), organizing satsangs, organizing meditation camps or, for me, organizing trips to eco villages for my college students. 

Satsang means “association with truth” (sat = true, sang = company) and is done by groups, often under the leadership of a guru (teacher), who wish to increase their spiritual/love consciousness and devotion to the divine. I am an infrequent member of just such a beautiful group which meets for satsang in the woods up the road from my house in New Hampshire.  I’ve learned a lot from my Sandwich Notch Road guru, Norman, and I think I can put a great deal of my learning to work for me in the woods over the next few weeks.  Our satsang group (Sangha) meets at his home for discussion and a veggie potluck lunch once a month.  It is in the company of such wonderful people (and cooks) that I have often felt the most real in my sadhu-ness. 

Not that one always needs a guru and a group to get busy with Sadhana – but it helps.  Pitfalls to Sadhana without a guru include increased ego and loss of motivation (over the long haul).  All this spiritual practice can get frustrating and exhausting without support.  Is it any wonder so many people prefer a trip to Ikea on Sunday or a football game, over seeking spiritual enlightenment?  But does the new Swedish love seat or the thrill of grid action get you UNION WITH THE DIVINE?  Who knows.  I’m going the route of Thoreau – living in radical simplicity, sucking the marrow, composting like mad.  Let’s see what happens.
Planting a 'Butterfly Garden' at Sadhana Forest, January 2010

Watering with my fellow Sadhus, the children of  Sadhana Forest

Fruit and Faith (after a grueling plane ordeal)

Eating fruit in Frankfurt.  Healthier than a wiener.  And more sustainable!  I think.  Not sure.  

I did that the last time (ate a wiener) I had a layover in Frankfurt on the way to India and it came out to be 20 bucks for a skinny tasteless tube of meat on top of some warm potato salad.  The waiter told me in a heavy German accent that is just how it was done in Frankfurt.  My true blue frankfurter dreams were dashed.  Never again, I swore.  So, I'm going with fruit today.

I wonder when the environmentalist activist, anti-agro-industry food, documentarians are going to come out with THE TRUTH ABOUT WURST movie. Someone needs to do it.  The modern pork industry is a nightmare and, yet, these Germans cling to it so fervently.

It is 3 in the morning here and I didn’t sleep at all on the 7 hour flight thanks to screaming Indian babies (many of them) and the worst turbulence, EVER.  Really, it was unreal. And now, I’m so exhausted.  Hence, I’m offering myself solace with something fruity and creamy and rich.  Yes, I know, this isn’t vegan but I’m not at the ashram yet.  Still, I’m feeling a little guilty about my non-vegan choices here at the, charmingly named, Goethe Cafe.  I am rationalizing this, perhaps as the philosopher himself would = I survived hell, I have a 6 and a half hour layover, and hence, I have earned ice cream.

Is it bad that I want to drawn the memories of my most recent near death experience in a concoction being touted on the German menu as PEACH MELBA??   From the photo you can see it is an explosion of peachy creamy goodness lathered in whipping and cookies.  Not knowing how large this peach monstrosity would be, I also ordered a side of fruit,  because I’m craving citrus, as well.  Does death make one hanker for the life-affirming freshness of a  fruit platter?  I think it is a wise ‘breakfast’ choice because my stomach is not quite ready for anything more substantial after that flight through Hell from Boston.  Certainly the tum is not ready for knockwurst or sushi (more surprising menu choices at The Goethe Café)!  So here I am and here is breakfast (at 3 a.m. Boston time):

As I sit here eating this citrus I’m realizing this is probably not the most sustainable/eco-friendly breakfast choice I could have made in snowy Frankfurt, even if it makes me feel less guilty about avoiding the wurst.  The best choice is never the wurst (had to say it, sorry).  Still, citrus fruit can’t be that much better.  From whence were these kiwi and passion fruits and oranges flown?  How many hundreds of gallons of petrol did it take to satisfy my fruit needs?  Perhaps I can convince myself that it is better to eat out-of-season fruits only in airports.  At least I’m saving the thousands of gallons of oil it would take to trans-ship them to distant Euro grocery stores.  Perhaps I’ll make a vow to only eat out-of-season fruits when I am actually dining in airport cafés?  Probably not good enough.  I’m feeling self-conscious about my fruit and, at the same time, so happy.  I am alive.  The fruit is healthy and cool and good.

More about the flight and my spiritual crisis on the plane…

Right after the lovely Lufthansa flight crew served up a light dinner of salmon, rice and veggies, all hell broke loose on our plane.  Smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where I always get a little nervous anticipating death in the dark, cold sea, thousands of miles from land (I’m generally not a great flyer), we hit unbelievable  turbulence.  Not just your typical jiggle and wake, I’m talking ROLLER COASTER HELL RIDE.  And it lasted a LONG TIME.  I am blogging about this because it was the closest near-death experience I’ve had in years and I was interested to watch my reaction to it all.  And you, too, fair reader may now join me in reliving this…

It was a long, bad haul.  The whole thing lasted about an hour or more – then it stopped and we had comparable weak after-shocks all the way to Europe.  I’m typically not one for prayer but on this plane ride I did pray, a lot.  Interestingly,  I found myself praying that if I had to die it would happen quickly with little pain.  I did NOT pray to be saved or my life to be spared.  I found myself mumbling (audibly) the Lord’s Prayer (not sure why since I don’t consider myself a Christian anymore). Old Episcopal habits die hard. I was gripping the arm rests and on the verge of sobbing the whole time.  Furtive glances at nearby passengers confirmed that I wasn't the only one panicking.  The plane was dipping and diving and plunging and roaring.  Most of us, even the veteran travelers, must have wondered “is this it?!”  It seemed to go on and on, the wondering, the waiting, the willing it all to end.  For at least an hour I waited for death.  I said goodbye to everyone I knew, I continued the Lord’s Prayer,  and I kept thinking about how cold the water would be if we crashed.  Would I feel the water, could anyone survive a crash, might the fuselage shred open and throw me to safety?   I wondered what it would feel like to be the sole survivor of a plane crash…

Amidst all this, I must confess that it did occur to me that if somehow I DID survive this hairy near-death experience, I COULD blog about it.  How redeeming.  But that should not in any way shape or form diminish the authenticity of my morbid certainty: death was near.

Faith comes in funny ways.  After a semester teaching about spirituality and recently re-confirming my intellectual commitment to a Hindu-Buddhist world view at my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, I found myself frantically muttering (almost chant singing) the Lord’s Prayer as the plane shuddered and fell, recovered and relapsed.  I could not, for the life of me, usher forth an Om or a mantra.  Terror brought out the Jesus in me.  I was so terrified that I actually broke into a cold sweat... well, more of a lather, really.  This had never happened to me before either.  Even amidst the horror and panic, I was a little embarrassed.  Were others sweating like this? It lasted about 30 minutes.  It was a miracle I didn’t lose my salmon.  I actually pulled out the little white paper bag from the seat pocket early in the turbulence and prepared to use it.  When the captain ordered the stewardesses to strap themselves in (in a voice not so calm) I knew I couldn’t dare to break the “ seat-belts-on" rule and rush to the toilet nearby to await the inevitable.  I was stressed-out  about BOTH the bag issue and about dying.  Strange how you can have two very contradictory worries in your brain at the same time and be okay with it.  The Captain came on again and explained that we were facing 120 mile an hour winds, and he hoped this bad weather patch would pass soon.  So I tried to bite my lip and hold back the tears of terror.  I had to close my eyes and focus on my breathing because I felt a panic attack, which I’ve never had, was probably inches away... 

Somewhere in the front of the plane a woman screamed for help in a weak and overwhelmed whimper.  It came again and again, plaintiff and desperate. The sound of it made us all hold our breath so we could be sure we were hearing it and not imagining it.  All over the plane people were ringing the stewardess buttons for help.  The captain had commanded the crew to strap in so none of them were moving.  The plane felt out of control.  Her cry for help kept coming, louder and more earnest.  I think the flight crew thought this was some passenger’s coping mechanism but it turned out that the woman really did need help -- her husband (an elderly Indian man) was having a panic attack and couldn’t breathe.  A steward leapt up from nowhere and reached over my head to open a cabinet to grab what looked to be a medical kit and a small oxygen tank.  Together, with a stewardess he rushed, stumbling, to the front of the plane even as the cabin pitched and creaked.  Despite my clench teethed, white-knuckled distress I couldn’t help but open my eyes and tilt my head out to see them run down the aisle, tossing and tumbling the whole way.   

The babies wouldn’t stop screaming.  Well who could blame them?  I found myself thinking that if I cried, too, I might feel better.  Why should the babies be the only screamers?  I began wondering if it was better to just panic and accept what I was going through or strive to be more Zen, more accepting, more calm in the moments before death.  I wondered what Norman would do at a moment like this.  Somehow it didn’t help that I seemed to be the only one on the plane sitting in a two seat block all by myself without a neighbor to claw or clench or cling to.  I couldn’t figure if dying alone was better than having someone there who would watch my panic in the seconds before we went down.  The women seated across the aisle from me were no help, they looked as panicked and uncertain as I did.  One lady kept watching, nervously, the stewardess sitting behind us to see if her face might reveal the hopelessness of the situation.  I watched the watcher, afraid her face would convey information I dreaded but unable to look away.  I had no hand to hold and that made me feel sorry for myself. I closed my eyes again.  

About 20 minutes into turbulence, I resolved I was okay with the death part and not the panic part, so, I tried harder to meditate, breathe and empty my mind.  This was impossible and I got angry at myself for not being more spiritual.  My hands hurt so badly.  If I could only release my desperate-grip on the arm rests on either side of me (which tightened every time the plane dropped and shuddered violently), I thought that might help my state-of-mind.  I tried to convince myself to just take this one small action but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t let go.  I couldn’t breathe.  I focused on not crying and inhaling deeper.  It seemed like my knuckles were somehow linked to my lungs… neither could relax.

I remember the 60’s counter culture icon and spiritual guru Ram Dass describing his thought at the moment he had a stroke years ago.  He found himself paralyzed on the floor and he confessed he did not think of God.  He talked about this experience in an excellent documentary (2003?) about his life, but most importantly, about his stroke, entitled FIERCE GRACE.   At the moment of his stroke, Ram Dass said he had absolutely no spiritual thoughts – he panicked.  “Here I was,” says Ram Dass, “Mr. Spiritual” and I didn’t think of God, I didn’t think about the Spirit, I didn’t think about spirituality at all!”  It struck me that he confessed this when he didn't have to confess it.  He expressed his own surprise at the fact that he didn’t think of calm, he didn’t detach – he didn’t follow his BE HERE NOW advice.  He felt the pain and fear and lived fully in it, even if only for a few moments.  He called the experience of having a stroke, which later changed everything he thought he believed in, being ‘stroked’ – He was stroked by God.  

In some ways, every near death experience is a Divine stroking, a caress, a Spirit pet.  I can’t say I’ve had many near death experiences (maybe only 3) – or at least three instances where I remember saying to myself ‘this is it, you are going to be dead in a moment’ – but of the ones I have had, this was the only one where I thought a lot about God while it was happening.  Okay, maybe it doesn’t even count as a near death experience and you will all read this and roll your eyes at my hyperbole.  But for at least 30 minutes tonight I thought I was a goner and that was very REAL for me.  This was the longest experience of sustained fear I’ve had where I couldn’t stop myself believing the end was close. I had more time to formulate my thoughts and my fears and my expectations about the moment and about the realness of my death than ever before.  And in a way, I’m proud of myself – for all the panic and unnecessary suffering I put myself though – because I got through it in once piece (emotionally and philosophically).  

This was surely the most spiritual and most spiritually frustrating moment  I’ve experienced in a long time – and yet, during the experience, I didn’t plea for my life, I didn't ask the Divine to spare me, and  I didn’t try to measure my life’s worth or regrets.  I chanted, I tried to breathe, I prayed, I remembered Ram Dass, I thought of my blog, and I kept my salmon down.

Oh crap.  The bill for my Frankfurt feast (fruit, ice cream and a tea) just arrived.  

18 euros = $29 !!! 

I will never, ever eat Fruit in an Airport ever again...  Unless of course, I am compelled to do so after a plane ride that shakes me to the inner core of my being and makes me look at the Reaper himself eye ball to eye ball.  Then I guess I deserve it.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Frosted flakes and dental hygiene

Our first snow storm of the season arrived today.  We have just about 12 inches after 12 hours of snow!  The forest is crystal magic in sparkling deep whiteness.  We only ventured out today to gather kindling in the forest and take fire wood for the stove from our porch supply.  The wind batters the trees outside our window, howling through the branches.

Rimbaud is like a proud pony prancing and dancing, jumping and diving in the snow.  We throw a snow ball, he leaps into the air to catch it.  Bewildered when it lands in the snow and he can't find it, he nuzzles the snow on the ground, buries his face in deep,  and comes up with a  snout of powder. It as if we have laid out a white carpet of frosted flakes just for his pleasure.  He is in love with this winter wonder and one can't help but laugh to watch him make a fool of himself.  Dogs are so pure in their joy & wilderness enthusiasm.  We can learn from them, and their sense of play, can't we?  We can be reminded, again, that the world offers us so many natural toys!
Michael and Rimbaud romping
Rimbaud thinks the sticks are for him!
Nice Catch!
Frolicking in the Forest Frost
Gathering kindling for the fire

I have almost finished packing save for a few summery cotton items that are now getting another go-around in the washer.  It took a little extra effort to extricate the flip fops and bathing suit from the depths of my disorganized closet.  I checked the weather in Bangalore: sunny, clear blue skies, 79 degrees.  I need to run to Rite-Aid tomorrow (we didn't want to risk the snowy roads today) to see if they have any sun tan lotion for sale in the midst of the bleak dark winter.  As requested, I'm trying to buy only all natural, organic products  for Sadhana Forest but I'm not sure if Americans even make 'non toxic' sun block!?  A few other organic products like Burt's Bees chap-stick and Tom's of Maine toothpaste will accompany me into the woods, too.  Alas, I could not find an environmentally friendly formula of DEEP WOODS OFF so I am breaking the rules and bringing the full anti-malarial protection of Deet.  I feel guilty about this and am using this blog as a confessional space to assuage my pangs of ecological malpractice.  It isn't working... 

Once we arrive at the ashram we can purchase ecologically harmless, biodegradable toiletries: soap, laundry detergent, toothpaste, and shampoo for 120 Rupees (or $3) but some other creature comforts are good to bring along (sun block, chap-stick, bug spray, etc).  When I visited the ashram last year I purchased one of these great packs and made good use of it.  All of it, that is, EXCEPT the tooth powder.  I just simply couldn't stomach the all-natural home-made ashram tooth cleaning powder made from Neem leaf, much to my shame.  It was just too terribly bitter. Nevertheless,  Neem has its miracle qualities.  I should acknowledge them here, since it is a tree (and a sacred tree!) and it is an AMAZINGLY useful tree, to boot.  

Azadirachta indica (வேம்பு - Vembu in Tamil, Neem in Hindi) is actually a member of the Mahogany family and indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. It has been praised for millennia for its medicinal usage.  And each morning, upon waking up to greet the day, Indians have been chawing on Neem branches for generations to keep their mouths clean, healthy & happy.

In India, neem is sacred.  The tree is called 'nature's pharmacy' because it is said to be antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral, among other things.  It also grows in drought prone areas and needs barely a trickle of moisture to thrive.  Impressive.  Some even claim neem has powers as a sedative and contraceptive! No wonder Tamils worship it.  During special village festivals they offer the leaves and flowers of the neem tree to the Goddess Mariamma (the goddes of small pox and rashes) -- for the cream of neem is said to heal these skin blights, too!  At weddings, people decorate with neem leaves to ward off disease and evil spirits, as well.  

Maybe I need to rethink my relationship with neem?  Hmmm...  well, for now, Tom's of Maine will offer me the low-guilt dental hygiene and sweetness I seek.  It is also all natural!

The fire is roaring, the Christmas tree is a dazzle, and the wind bursts around us in tormented gusts as we sit under a blanket on this cozy couch.  Hard to believe this is my last night of winter before departing for the tropics tomorrow.  The dryer is about to buzz and alert me to the fact that I must finish up my packing, and Joni Mitchell sings "CALIFORNIA" on Pandora radio:

"Still a lot of lands to see
But I wouldn't want to stay here
It's too old and cold and settled in it's ways here...

Oh will you take me as l am?
Will you take me as l am?
Will you?"

Goodbye snow! (New Hampshire, December 27, 2010)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Putting trees inside... and other unusual adventures

Our Christmas tree from the National Forest
People have been bringing pieces of trees into their homes, usually in the form of boughs and branches for over 2000 years... according to the Hebrew scriptures (that's the Old Testament to you and me) God even commanded it be done, as it says in Leviticus (23:30), " shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God...."

After a semester of reading about spiritual ecology,  it seems to me the power of trees is something ancient and enduring, and not just in a druid dancing-in-the-woods-full-moon kind-of way... but in a way truly sacred and significant (no offense to the pagans who still dance in the moonbeams intended).  God is in the trees, the trees are in God.  Or so some claim...

What is it about trees that inspires us... draws us near... makes us want to celebrate them?  

This year my partner, Michael, and I opted to cut down our own Christmas tree in the White Mountain National Forest behind our house.  Ranger Jim sold us a $5 tag and suggested a few spots we might hike to in order to find our yule bush.  He said he could not tell us where the perfect conical 7 foot firs lived but he was kind enough to show us where we might park for 'free' in certain picnic areas without being towed or ticketed.  We brought along our trail- loving pooch, Rimbaud (named for the French poet)  and spent about 3 hours all told on the endeavor.  It wasn't easy going out into the frosty wild to find a tree the right size and/or shape -- our minds and hearts had been corrupted by years of commercial Christmas tree stands near the box stores where all trees were 'perfectly' pruned, shaped and coiffed -- but we found something we both agreed we could cut, carry and get into our house with minimal pain that might fulfill the romanticized visions of conifers that danced in our heads.  Michael beamed upon it with pride when we found it and swore it was meant to be ours.  We sawed the lil' four footer down and slung it over Michael's shoulder, feeling heroic and brave and non-commercial.

Just as we began to hike out of the woods with our tree Rimbaud rejoined us.  He had been out exploring and sniffing.  We looked down and saw he was carrying a HUGE femur in his smiling jaws.  Tail wagging and proud, Rimbaud showed us where he had discovered his treasure and, much to our surprise, we found there the entire skeletal remains of a large moose!  The rib cage and skull, the legs and joints all in tact but spread across a small field about 20 feet.  It was awe inspiring.  We coaxed Rimbaud away with much difficulty after he rolled around in the smelly remains a bit more and somehow persuaded him to leave the femur behind.  

When we got home it was clear our 16 month old pup was excited by the fact that we had opted to put up some of the National Forest in our living room.  He danced and pranced and sniffed and wagged.  We decorated and he looked on curiously, grabbing at stuffed ornaments and barking giddy with noel cheer. That being said, I do think he may have been a little dismayed that we opted to bring home and decorate the shrub instead of the femur.  

What made us want this ever green scented stalk instead of that juicy, still smelly, marrow filled bone?!  What indeed?  Who decides which parts of the forest stays out in the "wilderness" and which parts get to come home and be domesticated? Rimbaud knew for certain that he had been stuck with the short end of stick when we later threw him in the bathtub and thoroughly sudsed him up to get rid of the unholy rotten moose aroma that stubbornly clung to his fur.  What was perfectly natural to (and delightful) to him was nothing short of God Awful to us.

So one has to wonder... what makes the tree so sacred and the moose so stinky?  Who gets to say which is more holy -- the spruce or the moose?

The day after tomorrow I leave my woods and head to India where I'll take up an experiment in sacred living that involves obtaining a new perspective on the forest (and perhaps on myself).  I am joining 10 students and two faculty colleagues. We'll be staying on an ashram in southern India devoted to reforestation and organic agriculture for 3 weeks.  

We'll join 50+ other folks on the ashram, and we'll be working hard planting trees and visiting sacred groves, medicinal forests, and temples.  Our homes will be huts made from forest fibers and our electricity will be generated from the sun (and bicycles).  We will eat only vegan diets (no moose) and we'll use only composting toilets.  We'll bathe with water from buckets we've drawn from the well under the shelter of the palms and we will find out what it means to wake at dawn to work in community in harmony with the earth.  We'll work alongside people from all over the world, Indians included, who have come for the sole (soul) purpose of connecting with nature in community.  And some of us will record the experience through blog and facebook and digital photos (thank god there is a WiFi hut fully connected to the outside world)!

By going into the woods I hope to suck the marrow out of life (in a purely vegan fashion, of course) and find a new perspective on the sacred.  At the very least, I hope to find a new side of me.  I hope some of you may enjoy coming along...