Love or Obedience: My Spiritual Journey Thus Far

Challenging Times

We are in tumultuous times. And to be clear, the tumult I’m referring to is living in a pandemic crisis, during a time of reckoning for systemic racism in our country, with a president who incites more chaos than peace and more hate than love. I’m referring to the fact that we have a president who proactively tries to dehumanize transgender people and deny them their basic rights. 

I vacillate between not understanding how so many Christians can align with him and feeling all too cynical and familiar with why Christians align with him. 

My Spiritual Journey

I grew up in the Christian church, and until my twenties I devoted my life to living my values as a self-identified Christian. The value that I held most dear was and is Love. Notice that I capitalize it in most if not all my writings when I refer to it this way. It is paramount. It is the dynamic vitality that breathes life into this universe. It is my Polaris when I’m lost at sea. It is kindness. It is humility. It is patience, and it is long suffering. If you are a Christian, then you know I’m referring to the qualities outlined in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s been quite a while since I threw down some Bible verses. But there it is. 

I left the church (and here I am referring to the general institution, not a specific congregation) in my twenties because it seemed that I had to choose between my deepest value of Love and my obedience to a set of beliefs. As I matured and lived into my own experiential truth in the world, it became apparent to me that many of the beliefs held by fundamentalist Christians were detrimental to human flourishing and downright oppressive. I’ve never been a huge fan of obedience anyway— seeing as it’s only as good as whatever or whomever you’re obeying—so with a heavy but resolved heart, I relinquished the title of Christian and set out on a journey with my compass set to Love.

As I embarked, some told me “no no no, you’re going astray! you’re going to get lost.” I believe that they loved me, but they were following a map. That particular map had been written thousands of years ago, and there was still a part on it that said “THAR BE DRAGONS” and the earth had edges to its quadrilateral form. But nevertheless, they trusted it. Even though there was an asterisk there at the bottom that said, “if all else fails and this proves to be wrong, follow Love.” 

What I think Religion has Co-Opted that Is our Innate Birthright

I left primarily over the church’s stance on sexual orientation. Several of my family members are gay, and I couldn’t stomach belonging to an institution that discriminated against people who are gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual, queer, intersex, or questioning. My conscience wouldn’t allow me to remain a part of an institution that regarded some people’s identity as a sin. 

Sexuality was never meant to be governed or dictated by a religion. It’s an innate, wonderful part of being human. No institution has the right to co-opt that sacred birthright. I mean this in regard to sexual orientation but also in terms of how people discover their sexuality as a natural part of human development. There is too much shame and control around people expressing their sexuality outside of marriage in the church. I think it causes a lot of unhealthy repression, suppression, and ultimately untimely and misfit marriages.

Another sacred birthright: spirituality per se. I believe that our ability to connect with the Sacred  is innate because we have the Sacred within us. Curiosity and wonder are as biologically wired into us as thirst and hunger. To be clear again, what I mean is that I do not believe that Christianity is the one and only path to Truth. 

These are some of the reasons that I left the church and stopped considering myself a Christian. Many people would agree that this makes me ineligible. And honestly, I’ve accepted that. As soon as you use a title, people judge you according to their measure of that title. I do still believe in Love and much of my definition of Love resonates with the way that it is described in the Bible and was enacted by Jesus. However, I refuse to cooperate with the above beliefs or practices. I also don’t want to be held to the framework that identifies God the way that the Bible does. 

Following Love and Being Christian

I KNOW there are Christians whose value for Love goes deeper than their obedience to detrimental beliefs. I know that these Christians are inclusive and working to become dynamic in their love for people as they hold onto their faith. I admire this very much. I know and love Christians who are committed to evolving and relating to what the Bible refers to as the real Word of God: Jesus. They mull over the teachings and essence of their spiritual teacher and live accordingly. 

There are Christian change-makers who are widening the circle and accepting that everyone belongs to Love and Love is innate in everyone. Richard Rohr, for example, is one that I know shares many of my beliefs and still uses the framework of Judeo-Christianity. Many of my friends and family members are evolving, though I won’t name them here in case they want to disassociate from my views. I know that it doesn’t have to be that you are either justice-oriented and non-Christian or justice-oriented and Christian. There are many paths, and I chose to leave the latter. But many have stayed on that path while also being advocates for justice. I see that, and I honor that path. 

Time for the New Story

Sometimes, it seems that when people leave the faith of their upbringing, they feel ill-equipped to navigate an authentic spiritual journey. It’s like organized religion outfits people with their leased equipment, and when you leave your stint with them you have to return your gear. This is why sometimes when people get disillusioned by church they go off the rails and engage in destructive behaviors toward themselves and others. 

Losing your religion doesn’t have to equate with losing all sense of meaning and purpose or ceasing a dedicated pursuit towards understanding truth and Love. Conversely, subscribing to a specific religion shouldn’t mean that you aren’t practicing the true muscles of spirituality (curiosity, wonder, love, mindfulness, etc). 

I am not a materialist. I never will be. I do not have enough faith for that, quite simply. I can’t experience this world without sensing deeply that we live in a very meaningful, connected Universe. Too often religion dominates this story with their specifics while intellectuals (many in the liberal, progressive camp) deny that there is any meaning. It’s time for a new story to emerge—a story in which a meaningful universe and religion aren’t assumed to be coupled and intellectual rigor and spirituality aren’t assumed to be mutually exclusive. 

Back to the Fact that A lot of Christians Support Trump

So, it seems to me that I shouldn’t be surprised that many of the people who elected Donald Trump are the people who heard him say the right things about their specific beliefs. There is a way to be obedient to a set of beliefs without embodying love. Does he truly live into the story of a meaningful, Sacred Being guiding the Universe? I don’t see any evidence of that. I see evidence of him embracing (only nominally) religion as a key part of his conquest ideology.

Here’s the thing, evangelical American Christians by and large, made a choice when they chose to back up Trump. They chose someone’s false promises of national “greatness” over true goodness. They chose propping up a systemically racist system and emboldening overt white supremacy over true remorse, reconciliation, and reparation. They chose power and greed over equity and generosity. They chose oppressing and dehumanizing LGBTQ+ humans and saying that they are not worthy of the same rights as everyone else. They chose someone who serves the Almighty Dollar but calls it the Almighty God. This is not the pursuit of Truth and Love. This all part of his conquest. 

Trump Voters who Regret 

I do think there are good-hearted and misguided people who voted for this guy because they wanted more change than they thought Hilary would bring. I know that there were some people who are one-issue voters and voted against Hilary because they are anti-abortion and they confused him with being Pro-Life (which he is NOT). I don’t think that everyone who voted for Trump in the last election knew the full consequence of what they were doing. 

In fact, I think what happened is that people’s deep psychological needs for purpose and meaning, a sense of belonging, and hope got tangled up with his promises of change. I think that he scooped up a bunch of voters who felt displaced in society and didn’t know how to relate to an ever-evolving and rapidly more complex society. We all have the need to belong, and our need for purpose and meaning can drive us sometimes to swear loyalty to a certain set of beliefs. It’s of the utmost importance to be careful to whom or what we give our loyalty.

We are all Connected

Let me widen my circle here and say that I believe that we are all connected. In fact, at root, that is what I’ve always wanted: to make the circle big enough for all. This is not meant to be an Us versus Them post. Or a post against followers of any faith. This is meant to say that we ALL have to find a way forward towards actual Love and Goodness that transcends and goes deeper than our specific beliefs. Let us connect on the deeper value of Love. We must consider that obedience is only as good as whom or what we obey. 

Furthermore, if you practice and follow Love, whatever your religious or spiritual orientation, then we share a lot of alignment. One translation of the word Namaste means “the light in me meets the light in you” and this is how my spirit feels whenever I’m relating with someone who abides in Love. 

In the words of Pauli Murray, 

“When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them. Where they speak out for the privileges of a puny group, I shall shout for the rights of all [hu]mankind.”

More Resources on NonViolence and Peace Literacy

Rivera Sun, novelist and Nonviolence activist

https://wagingnonviolence.org/metta/author/riverasun/

Paul K. Chappell, Peace Literacy 

Kazu Haga, Kingian Nonviolence

https://www.eastpointpeace.org/ourtrainings

Rabbi Micahel Lerner, Overcoming Trump-ism

https://read.dukeupress.edu/tikkun/article/32/1/4/30615/Overcoming-Trump-ismA-New-Strategy-for

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Living Below The Line: Day 1

“LIVE BELOW THE LINE” was scrawled in Collin’s handwriting on our kitchen chalkboard when I stumbled down the steps bleary-eyed and half awake. “Today’s the day! We’re doing this. Sen and Junes were all in for starting today.” 

Cue the legendary scene from A Christmas Story when Ralphie says “OH, FUUUUUUUUUUUDGE” in slow motion.

Now, to be clear, this was actually my idea born from a homework assignment from one of the nonviolence classes I’m taking with Rivera Sun and Veronica Pelacaric. Like a lot of awesome ideas in our family, I think of them, but Collin actually commits to them. And I’m actually really glad we are doing it. It just took a couple cups of coffee (which cost $0.50 of my personal daily allowance) to remember that this was a good idea. 

Fun Fact: Becoming vegetarians is another one of my great ideas. I pronounced myself a vegan on a whim 15 years ago, Collin said “lemme finish this 2 pound bacon cheeseburger and then I’m in.” And then he was doing all the research on why environmentally, ethically, socially, etc etc etc it made sense to be vegans (I’ve managed to wiggle the “etati” back into our lifestyle) forever.

So, what is “the line?” 

“The line” is the universal measure to determine extreme poverty. According to data from the World Bank, 10% of people worldwide live on $1.90 per day or less. So, our family decided that we will commit one day a week to eating below this line. 

Now, we aren’t able to truly embody the experience of the 734 million people who are living in extreme poverty. The home we have, the clothes we wear, the toothpaste we use, the clean, safe water that comes right from our sink–all of these luxuries are the context of our life. That $1.90 per day is what a person living in extreme poverty has to work with for not only food, but also housing accommodation, medicine, transportation, clothing—everything. And it’s not just a day a week that they opt into; it’s the context of their lives caused by others’ greed and injustice.

So, I acknowledge the limitations of this small action, but it’s a step that we can take as a family to 

*develop empathy and connect with other people’s experiences—people who were born without the privileges that we’ve always had. 

*redistribute some of our resources to others who live in extreme poverty

*connect with what it means to live more simply: practicing how not to indulge every impulse and, in so doing, defy the monster of greed by exercising the muscles of self-discipline

*raise some awareness as I report about our on-going experience doing this

So, we did the math and have adjusted our monthly food budget accordingly, and Senya and Juniper will choose where and how we more justly reallocate the savings. It may be a hunger relief org, like this https://www.thp.org/to-end-world-hunger-weneedwho/. Or it may be another justice-oriented org of their own interest. 

Already this has sparked some great conversations about the hidden injustices that can often be part of food production and transportation worldwide. 

Some people think kids can’t handle these types of conversations, that is not the case in this home. Senya is a highly sensitive kid, and she has—not only been able to handle these conversations—but has wanted to know the truth as best as we can give it to her. Coupling the truth with activism is key, though. Informing people about injustice and then giving them tools to help create a more peaceful and equitable world actually gives people purpose, meaning, and empathy. 

Senya, after some discussion, said “Just like the FDA is required to label the food ingredients, corporations should be required to list the social ingredients that go into food.” I agree, Senya.

Anyway, that’s basically all I’ve got for now because I’m so spacey I can barely think. If you’d like more info on world hunger and poverty go here: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview

To watch Hugh Jackman give an inspiring little blip about living below the line, go here:

To find out more about the brands you purchase (some of the info that Senya thinks should go on the food labels), go here: https://www.behindthebrands.org/brands/

To find out more about Nonviolence and the classes being offered by Pace e Bene (an organization that Col and I love) go here: https://paceebene.org/events

“Live Simply So Others May Simply Live.” -Mahatma Ghandi

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“Forget your perfect offering”

I usually wait for inspiration to move me to write, and then I write in a kind of fugue state. I leave myself behind and tap into something other. It is like I enter a place made of ideas and thoughts, feelings and truths. I can describe them to others while I’m there. When I write from that place, I feel like I’m sending back letters of hope to the world. 

I haven’t been to that place in a long time. And I don’t think they offer curbside pick up. 

This pandemic caught our attention just after a trip back to Los Angeles. We reunited with family and close friends. We filled our hearts with love and sunshine, cat cafés and beach days. Our friends had a party for us just because we were there. That filled my heart to overflowing. 

I thought I was coming home to a new job working for the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College. I had gone through several interviews and had been in touch with the hiring manager and the person with whom I’d be working closely. We had discussed my starting date, my salary, my schedule. The kids were about to start school at our local public school here. Their paperwork was submitted, and their start date was scheduled.

So when we got back to Vermont, our hearts were full. We had connected with our former home and returned to bright possibilities here. By the end of the week, the grocery store shelves were almost empty, and (though I didn’t know it at the time) that would be my last trip off our property for two months. The potential job was closed due to the virus. And like a Gilligan’s Island episode, we were homeschooling alone on the mountain again after thinking we had set sail toward a new, socially integrated lifestyle.

Despite the disappointments and cancellations, I felt incredibly grateful for all this land we have here, for the chickens who lay us eggs daily, for the fact that it was a mild spring and not in the 30s and sleeting. I was thrilled that we could get outside and be perfectly safe on our 64 acres. I felt full of appreciation that we could stop by farm stands and never interact with another human while obtaining fresh, locally grown produce. I thought, “Wow. We have a perfect set up for such a time as this.”

In the stay at home/lock down phase, I had a sense of camaraderie with everyone I saw online. People were posting funny memes about their apocalypse outfit being pajamas instead of superhero clothes. Ellen was doing puzzles and legos on Instagram. John Krasinki did his “Some Good News” show from his house. I found comfort in the fact that we were all in this together. Some had it way worse than others of us, to be sure. But I connected with the sense that we all were facing a crisis as best we could—which meant staying at home. 

But then, with this second phase and all the nebulous and conflicting information (things reopening while the number of new cases is still increasing), it’s been difficult. Negotiating the psychological needs for relationships, purpose, meaning, and belonging with the very real need to keep people alive and physically healthy has been like a terrible math anxiety dream. Wading through the information out there feels like wading through a mosquito infested swamp. The buzzing and biting of mosquitoes are all the fights people are having while I’m online just trying 1) to find legitimate info and 2) to feel a sense of connection to others

And that’s not even mentioning how awkward it is to navigate the social protocol of who you let into a social bubble and who you don’t and who you report your decisions to and what warrants a report (like do you tell your bubble cohort when you go to the grocery store in a mask? Or do you only tell them if you see new people—but what about if it’s outside? Does it go in the report if you definitely stayed 6 feet apart AND wore a mask?). 

Vermonters are taking the virus precautions very seriously. If we replaced the actual summer Olympics with a Covid Preparedness and Recovery Olympics (at least just among the United States) Vermont would take the gold medal. There is a different level of independence and individualism here than I’ve ever encountered in the other 4 states where I’ve lived. Being self-sufficient is kind of the Vermont vibe already. Which is great from a physical health and sustainability stand point. But DANG. It’s intense for those of us who aren’t actually Vermonters.

Partly this is also because we live on top of a mountain without any neighbors. So, when we get stay at home orders, we literally don’t see another human for months. I have to go a mile to the mailbox and when I pass neighbors in their gardens or am lucky enough to see the mail carrier, I wave like I’m signaling a plane from a deserted island. 

Sometimes it’s also easy for my psychological needs to get tangled with trauma. For example, it’s really easy for me to experience loneliness (and definitely interpersonal conflict) as a sign that “I don’t belong here.” I also find that my self worth, sense of purpose, need for nurturing relationships—they all get tangled in a great, big ball. My go-to is to always think that means I need to move. 

In a pandemic, an impulsive move across the country doesn’t seem like the wisest thing, so this is really requiring me to deal with all this stuff in place. That’s not my strong suit. I’m better “dealing with things” while I’m packing boxes and moving on to the next place I’m going to live. But I promised Collin that I wouldn’t do a panic run from this life choice. I promised him that if and/or when we move somewhere else, I’ll try my very best to wrap this life up well first. 

A panic run is a real thing people do when they get lost. Getting lost is actually one of my worst fears and incidentally also happens to me somewhat frequently because I have a terrible sense of direction. I’ve worked on both psychological lostness and also navigation skills over the past few years. 

One thing I learned from a very wonderful wilderness instructor was that the best thing to do when you’re lost is stop, sit down, and breathe. Once you are calm, empty your pockets. Look at what you DO have. Get creative about what you could use and how. He even demonstrated this and said “I could even use the edge of my credit card  to brush enough fibers off my jeans to make some tinder.”

The point is: you look at what you DO have and you empower yourself with the sense that you DO have resources. You do NOT panic. And you certainly do not want to do a panic RUN. You will end up even more lost and it will be harder for others to find you. 

So, there is my very real share. I’m not sharing it from a heightened place of marvel or awe. I’m sharing it from—where else would I be?—my house. I thought that perhaps it would bring some comfort to others who may be struggling in some way to know that I am too. It’s not easy. This is a really difficult year. I think it’s important to continue to connect with others and offer hope in whatever capacity we can. This is me turning out my pockets and not panicking. I found some words in my pocket and I’m sharing them here. It’s my way of building a shelter, a fire, and knowing that I do have what it takes to keep myself alive until I’m out of the woods, figuratively speaking (and also in reality because I literally NEVER leave the woods anymore).

This is my way of saying that this is STILL an “unprecedented time” as so many emails let us know in the beginning. 

I’m going to try to keep writing a little more frequently because it’s what I can do to help myself (and maybe offer some hope to others) during this time.

“So ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” —Leonard Cohen

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A Life Illuminated

Something happened to me this year just after my February breakthrough that I mentioned in my last post. I was finally able to connect with my life here in Vermont on a deeper level. My moods are no longer determined by the weather. I can, at last, see the beauty in a grey sky. 

Staring down the mundane, facing my boredom, facing my fear of obscurity and a quiet life—and coming through to the other side—it allowed me to reclaim the ability to see art and poetry in every day life. It was a turbulent psychological experience that I dreaded even before we moved from Los Angeles to Vermont. I’d lie awake in my bed in Topanga in those weeks leading up to our move knowing that there was a lot of internal work waiting for me here in Vermont. Yet, I still chose to move here because I wanted to live a beautiful life somewhere where we could have land, be immersed in nature, and find the extraordinary in everyday life.

Living in Los Angeles was exactly what I needed for the 4 1/2 years that we lived there. So much happens in childhood—good and bad—that living somewhere very other and different than where I grew up was very healing. I’ve written before about how I wanted to differentiate from my past and others’ concept of who I was. I wanted to be immersed in the anonymity of a vast, exciting city. In LA, my story was my own entirely, and people only knew about me what I wanted them to know.  

In LA, everything was different than it was where I grew up in Delaware. The natural landscape was vastly different: mountains and coastline versus farmlands and creeks. The cultural landscape was very different: urban and metropolitan versus rural and suburban. The seasonal cycles were drastically different: everything gets green in December versus everything gets brown in December. The climate was different: sunshine most the year with the exception of the rainy and coastal fog seasons versus fall, winter, spring, and summer. Even the oceans were noticeably different from each other. In the Pacific ocean, the waves come rolling in from such a distance that they crash far from shore. In the Atlantic, where I grew up, the waves are punctuated and crash much closer to shore. The foods are different, the ethos in general is very different. There is a whole continent’s width between Delaware and Southern California. And you feel that difference entirely even when you just travel between the two places. 

Traveling is one thing, but living in a place is entirely different. When you are traveling, you know that you are passing through and you still have your reference for reality based somewhere else. When you live somewhere long enough, you start to shift your reference for reality to where you are.

It took me about 6 months to stop feeling like I didn’t actually belong in Los Angeles. There was a steep uphill climb to realize there were a lot more rules for the good of everyone than somewhere like Pennsylvania. And people don’t mind telling you if you’re breaking them. I was gently scolded a number of times in the beginning about my neglect to turn my wheels the proper direction when parking on an incline, checking google maps on my phone while in the driver’s seat (though I was at a red light), my tardiness to gather my mail from the shared mailbox that we had for our multiple residence address, and most of all if I EVER forgot my reusable grocery bags.

Living in Los Angeles required me to shift my thinking from “I’ll do whatever I damn well please” to “in a city of 20 million people, everyone’s choices directly impact each others’.”

Soon, I had mastered the unwritten SoCal Westside Social Handbook, and then it felt like a very socially agreeable place to live. One of the key factors to adjusting to life in LA is knowing you belong there just as much as everyone else. Most people are transplants, and everyone is working hard to stay there. It’s a place where who you are can be more important than what you own. What your passions are can be more important than how you earn your income. Anyone can aspire and live into their dreams there. It’s a very inspiring place once you learn the basics in the unwritten social handbook. 

In fact, I became so acclimated to living in LA—a place so very distinct and different from everywhere else in America—that leaving began to feel like traveling to another country…or worse.

After 3 years of living in LA, we got Fern (our RV) and traveled around America for 3 months. It was so surprisingly strange to be in our own country and yet feel so other. Very quickly people stopped looking like aspiring movie stars or starving artists. Somewhere around Arizona we stopped being able to find Pellegrino and arugula.

Without realizing it, I had become a resident of LA LA Land (not just Los Angeles, that is, but the LA LA Land mentality). I had acclimated to the very elite and non-representative qualities that draw so many to such a place. I had forgotten about cigarettes. I had forgotten about bugs. I had forgotten about soda, cheese doodles, and Kmart. I had forgotten about overcast weather and graveyards. I had forgotten what ordinary felt like. 

Unfortunately, I was experiencing culture shock in my own nation. That felt worse and more terrible than experiencing culture shock in a different country. I wanted desperately to be able to connect back to my life wherever I was, but I just kept only seeing through a lens of utter shock—and it all felt like people didn’t care about their lives. I was interpreting ordinary as equivalent to apathy. 

The last half of our trip, we spent either traveling to or in gorgeous, world class destinations. When we hit the Badlands on our way back west, I started to feel better. Then National Grasslands was serene and helped me to remember how beautiful our continent is. Then we got to the Grand Tetons. That was a real boost. Gorgeous, snowcapped mountains are like an oxygen mask when I otherwise can’t breathe. Jackson Hole, albeit culturally very different from the West Side of LA, was curated for people who want to experience nature while being insulated by the benefits of wealth. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had become on of those people. 

Yellowstone, US Glacier, Canadian Glacier, and then finally my favorite place in the world—Banff. We stayed in several different parts of Banff, and my favorite was a beautiful spot called Waterfowl Lakes—off the beaten tourist path. Nowhere on earth compared to how that place made me feel. Especially there with Collin, Sen, Junes, and Zuri. I felt complete. And there was no cultural luxury and in fact the locals seemed very ordinary. 

We had packed Fern’s refrigerator before we set out from Canmore, so we had everything we needed. At one point, however, we went to try to buy something and the nearest store was very…rustic. But not in that Jackson Hole way. Like in a “chewing tobacco for sale” and “no arugula” kind of way. 

And yet, Waterfowl Lakes was one of the most gorgeous and inspiring places I’d ever been. And this created a rift in my self-concept. When did I become someone who needed more than ordinary life had to offer? Had I become an elitist? How had I become someone who felt most comfortable surrounded by people exactly like me? How had I not noticed this? When did I stop traveling like a poet as I once did—inspired by Jack Kerouac and Simon and Garfunkel lyrics—and begin traveling like a Bougie middle-aged woman? When did I stop seeing the art and beauty of every day citizens’ lives and instead start turning my nose up in disdain at their very ordinary brands and very ordinary foods? I’d come from connecting with the living poetry of eating a Mrs. Wagner’s pie and smoking cigarettes to shopping at Whole Foods and eating imported cheese. 

I’m not blaming Los Angeles for this change that happened to me, but I do know that my time there played a part in shaping my expectations for what a good life looks like. I moved there to allow my spirit, mind, and social identity to expand beyond the limitations of my hometown. And that happened there, and I will forever be grateful for all that I learned there. Some of my dearest, friends and cherished family members live there. It will always feel like a home to me. 

But traveling within my own country and having culture shock made me realize that I had become very limited in what I could internalize as a good experience. My muscles to create synthetic happiness had atrophied significantly. I had lost almost all my grit. 

Somewhere along the way, I had stopped believing that transcendence, beauty, meaning, and extraordinary experiences can be created from the basic, ordinary stuff of life. Somewhere along the way I had started to mistake money and glamour as the mode for extraordinary. Somehow I had become less capable of seeing how someone who is wrinkled and worn with age can be tremendously beautiful when they smile. Suddenly you can realize that the crinkles around their eyes are from decades of joy and kindness. Somewhere along the way, I had forgotten that in college a fantastic date with Collin cost a grand total of $1.20—two bagels and a hike through the woods with excellent conversation charged with all we were learning in college. Somewhere along the way I had started to internalize the belief that happiness was the end goal. Somewhere along the way I started to value following my own aesthetically easy-to-access version of happiness more than staying in difficult circumstances and learning and growing from them. 

So, I led the charge to move to Vermont. Why Vermont? Well, we headed out here to look for properties based on the following. It’s a socially progressive culture in a rural landscape. People vary in their specific political leanings and views, but overall it is very progressive and inclusive, and that was important to me. I wanted to be somewhere with very distinct seasons. I wanted to be somewhere with water—rain, streams, ponds, rivers, waterfalls, etc. I wanted to be somewhere where we could create our own experience in nature. This particular part of Vermont is not just a second-home destination. It’s rural, and it’s one of the only places I’ve been where the farmers are also likely to be philosophers, artists, professors, writers, or educated (either formally or self-taught) in some other interesting field of thought. And once we got here and stepped onto this property, my heart fell in love with this place in the same kind of way that I had felt about Waterfowl Lakes. I felt like I could experience anything here, and it would be big enough and beautiful enough to contain whatever I was feeling. 

So, I knew it was a good choice all along; that’s what gave me the courage to do this. But I was a weakling in the ways of grit and synthetic happiness. It took me almost a year and a half, but I am proud to report that cloudy days do not send me into the abyss of despair anymore.

The thing about chasing happiness is that it’s elusive. It’s like trying to embrace the shadow of an object rather than the object itself. Happiness is the shadow that is cast by a life illuminated. The sunshine is Love. When we reach for happiness we cannot grasp it. We do better when we look to the sunshine and plant ourselves somewhere with great southern exposure. Then we can know that our shadows will come and go depending on cloud cover, time of day, and seasonality. The sun always rises, and we can rest in that. It may be obscured from us at times, and we may go days without shadow. But just because we are obscured doesn’t mean the sun isn’t there. And eventually, we will be illuminated again. 

PS: I still love arugula. And fortunately, I’m surrounded by farmers who grow all kinds of fancy micro greens. 

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Finding the Solitude in Isolation

The two last lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day, are resounding within my soul right now:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Those two lines taken out of context may conjure up images of the intense, singular pursuit of vast success and a grand life. 

In truth, though, this poem is about lying down in the grass and observing how a grasshopper behaves. More broadly, it’s about becoming absorbed in the details of the natural world to the state of wonder, reverence, and awe. 

That’s how I ended up here in Vermont. I wanted to embrace a life of simplicity and nature immersion like so many who have inspired me—Thoreau, Emerson, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Sy Montgomery, etc—and learn from that experience. 

I’m an idealist—and an industrious one at that— so I am constantly trying to reach Polaris as an actual destination rather than using it as a point of reference. Suffice it to say, the learning part of life is what I always underestimate. When I imagine an arduous journey of any kind, I really use my mental Hollywood effects. I edit the images in my mind as a montage with some poignant music—gathering eggs from hens, painting barns, tapping maple trees in spring (Beta Radio, Gregory Alan Isakov, Reed Foehl)—and I have sold myself on the end experience: happiness. 

The actual truth is, when you’re living the learning, it’s painful at times. And happiness isn’t an end result. Happiness is a by product of a life well-lived. And a life well-lived takes a lot of work. And the work isn’t always gathering eggs or tapping maple trees. Sometimes it’s internal work like facing down the mundane and deciding what to do with it or acknowledging what keeps you from inner peace when all else is quiet. 

In this regard, I had a little advance study session on this whole self-isolation thing that we’ve all been plunged into recently. It was called “February in Vermont.” It’s a private study group that meets in peoples minds all over the state, individually, for weeks at a time. 

So back in early February, I decided, for extra credit, to set aside a solid week where I focused entirely on leaning into this uncomfortable experience of feeling isolated. I wanted to listen to what it was inside of me that kept avoiding the stillness. Why did the cold, damp February sky weigh on my soul so heavily? Why couldn’t I allow myself to just settle down and connect with what and who was around me? 

After a week of waking early to mediate, running daily without any music or distractions, eating only minimal amounts of clean foods, avoiding screen time, journaling, and letting myself acknowledge what I felt— I got my answers.

For me, isolation and a lack of regular, positive human interaction can make me question my worth–sometimes the existential purpose in general. It makes me question the finitude of my own life and grieve all that will never be. When I feel disconnected, it is because I feel restless and I want to dream up new adventures, pursuits, life paths, and ambitions. When I feel isolated, I really want to believe that there is a place I can go, or an experience I can have, someTHING that I can eat, buy, or drink to feel better. All of those things experiences are great in their own right, but when I’m using them to avoid facing my fears, they’re each just one more way to run away from myself. It’s what I do when I want the happiness without the work that creates a life well-lived.

My nigh unbearable urge to escape the discomfort of feeling isolated—and for me, that means ultimately afraid that life is meaningless— is because there is a real need there— to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to something bigger than myself. 

I’m not saying that it’s bad to have other humans help us meet that need for connection—for sure that’s vital to our health! But we can not always rely on others for that connection back to ourselves.

Health and wellness are built on something that we experience and build when we are alone in our thoughts, our feelings, and our own internal worlds. When it’s quiet and we are alone, it’s best if we can acknowledge how we are doing and sit with it without immediately trying to escape into some distraction. Having a life that isn’t so full with activities and people can feel like it leaves too much time to be alone in our thoughts. Can we find a way to be at peace within ourselves when there is no easy distraction? That’s something that sometimes takes the kind of work that doesn’t always make it into my musical montage. 

Usually, our current global world with instant everything doesn’t force us into this discomfort very often. We can instantly be entertained, distracted, and consume whatever we want usually within minutes if not seconds. This whole lock-down and virus has forced us—even those of us who are fortunate enough to be somewhat removed from the devastation of the sickness itself—into an uncomfortable position where we are more limited than we have become accustomed to being. 

I have learned that limitation in healthy doses can be conducive to personal growth. I used to think that infinite possibility was glamorous and ideal. I’ve changed my mind. When our focus is too much on reaching outward while not wanting to sacrifice opportunity, we forget sometimes to care for what and who is right around us. And that begins with ourselves. We are each worth working to know better, love better, and help grow.

Emerson said it well, 

“Give this person the inner work of his intellect, and he will be happier than the richest person.”

Developing our own minds and selves (which I view as a holistic sense of consciousness in a spiritual sense too) allows us to live a richer life even when we are unable to have that wonderful, social connection that we want when we want it. Accepting ourselves, acknowledging our inner being that needs attention—it’s important. 

So, where do I turn when I’m alone and I need meaningful connection back to myself and what is around me? Personally, I turn to nature. That is where I find meaning, wisdom, and hard-bought peace of mind. Being immersed in our natural world reminds me that I am part of something much bigger than myself. If I can’t get outside, I really need art—poetry, literature, music—the work and inspiration of others who have had insights through their own personal journeys and share them as a piece of the great map towards consciousness and enlightenment. Then I need time to process my own internal synthesis of my experiences in nature and art. I like to journal, play the piano, and work through ideas and concepts. 

I believe that spirituality is a sacred, intuitive element of human nature. The desire to find and create meaning in this world is as hard-wired as hunger and thirst. I think that when we allow ourselves to sink down to that place of quiet, stillness, and solitude—sometimes it can be scary at first. We may find that we are with a hyperventilating, fragmented part of ourselves. But I’ve learned that when we listen to what that part of ourselves has to say, and we sit with whatever that is…eventually we see that we can help ourselves to endure hard things. That wave of panic or boredom or whatever it is crashes over us and the recedes. Comfort comes. Insight comes. Growth happens. And then, when we step back out into society we will hopefully be stronger and wiser having been through this pandemic. But even now, we always have a choice about how we will engage with our life.

So, do tell–what will you do with your one, wild and precious life?

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finding transcendence in every day life

We’ve now lived through three seasons of life here on 64 acres atop a mountain in Vermont. Nature is pervasive here—the sounds, fragrances, sights, and sensations we experience are all from the forest, the pond, the creek, or the animals and plants that inhabit them. This nature-immersion has been transformative for all of us, and I’ll write some about my own experience here. 

This nature-based lifestyle has been a big exhale for me, and a meditative return to being present with what is. Prior to moving, the idea of being present with what is, surrounded by nature with very little cultural distractions was simultaneously terrifying and luring. I knew I’d have to face some of the older, deeper psychological and spiritual work I had set aside when I moved back to LA to take a break from the heaviness and intensity that can sometimes come with the process of being me.

Working in the garden, planting trees, caring for animals, and living through winter, spring, and summer has shown me that I can simply be. The cycles of nature continue on ever forward in magnificence regardless of my internal state. I don’t need faith to believe that. I witness it daily. This has been good and therapeutic.

At the start of summer, I didn’t have enough faith to plant our garden. You take this tiny seed and bury it in the dirt. This seems preposterous. You don’t bury important things, usually. And something that tiny? Forget about it. I don’t like wasting my time on ridiculous things. So, I sat there and watched Collin plant the garden while I talked about how I wasn’t sure this Vermont life was really working out for me. 

After a few days, tiny sprouts appeared. That was encouraging enough that I figured I may as well water those tiny little green things. They looked so excited to be there, speckling the brown dirt with their tiny green lives. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, but they were very small. I didn’t see how this was ever going to amount to much. Nevertheless, it became part of our daily ritual to water the plants after we had let the chickens and bunnies out in the barnyard. 

So, as time went on, day after day, we’d water these hopeful sprouts, pull up weeds, and slowly witness their growth. 

I would not have believed it except that I watched it happen with my own eyes. Little by little these sprouts became carrots, broccoli, lettuce, kale, pumpkins, cucumbers, squash, and zucchini. We ate whole dinners comprised mainly of food from that garden. We continued to pull the weeds and fed them to the chickens who were starting to lay eggs. 

The stems and leftover food that we didn’t eat kept going into “the compost bin” as Collin called it. I was pretty sure that was just disgusting new kind of trash can specifically for food scraps, but it seemed to make Collin feel resourceful. So I continued putting all of our food scraps in there. Again, I had very little hope and zero faith in this process. 

Then one day he took me out to where he had been periodically dumping the bin and turning it all year, and it was actually the richest, brownest, and earthiest dirt I’ve ever seen. Again, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. There was no trace of peels or rinds or stems or egg shells. What once was all that refuse and garbage was now rich, beautiful earth ready to provide nutrients to next year’s garden. We continued to tend to the garden and eventually those tiny sprouts I didn’t even have enough hope to plant nourished us throughout the entire summer. 

I had a similar experience witnessing the seasons. I had a difficult time believing that it would actually be wintry as we were moving here. When we drove away from Topanga last November, we were leaving 80 degree sunshine days. Our skin was sun-kissed, and our feet were bare. We had sand from the beach in our car and throughout the bottom of my purse. Within 5 days of arriving to Vermont, we needed our snow gear. By February, I was a full believer in snow. It was what we had known for three and a half months by then and what we would continue to know for at least another month and a half. 

By March it was difficult to believe spring would actually come. I found it hard to believe that all the trees would be full of life and green leaves again. Winter is deep and far reaching here, and it leaves naked branches, frozen ground, and very little color in the woods. By April, when the sky was overcast for days, I thought that this winter must have finally broken spring. There would be no more color. There would be no more blue sky or sunshine days. How could there ever be warmth again when all felt damp and cold for so long? 

And then, one day in early May, when all hope of anything green or good seemed lost, there were buds on the magnolia tree. Blossoms are miraculous. When the green returns to the grass and the leaves on the trees really do reappear, it seems like life is overcoming all odds. It all seems so impossible and ridiculous and crazy—like even though it happened once before, it could never happen again.

So, I think I’ll stay here a while longer just to see what happens. Just to see if indeed the leaves really will all turn different colors this autumn. Just to see if this compost we made really will prepare the soil for next year’s garden. Just to see if the ground really will frost again. I want to be here to see if the pond will freeze solid again so that what was our swimming hole all summer becomes our ice skating rink once more. It seems impossible. Good thing nature doesn’t rely on my faith to keep performing her miracles. 

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter…to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring — these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”  —John Burrough

Zuri really embodies the transcendence in every day life.
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Vermont Life

It’s time for a new installment of our Vermont life update! 

We have had many experiences here in Vermont that have been rewarding and required a lot of work, growth, and a sense of humor. Even just from when we moved into our new house and realized that the woodland creatures had been squatting there for 8 years. And being vegetarians who try to never take the life of an animal if possible, we rescued many a mouse in those early winter days. “Toilet Mouse” will go down in history as an important one. His namesake is telling—he was bobbing up and down, treading water in the toilet bowl with the cats prowling around waiting for him to jump out. So naturally, we warmed him up and gave him cheese and waited until he was fluffy and spunky again. And then we drove him off to an abandoned cabin where we relocate all our furry visitors (with a care package of the finest Vermont cheese).

Reviving a mouse that was so weak he couldn’t move when I found him trapped in the bottom of a trash can.

When people find out that we moved to Vermont from Los Angeles, many ask what inspired such a big move. I wonder that too, sometimes. It was a huge, drastic move and rather sudden from decision to implementation (2 months). Moving from a west coast city to rural New England is quite the cultural and natural switcheroo. But, there were a lot of things big and small that all motivated me to want to try this dream. It’s one that we’ve had for a while—to be stewards of a big piece of beautiful earth with streams and woods (the pond is a huge surprise bonus) where our kids and Zuri can easily go explore from our doorstep. I didn’t want to just dream it anymore; I wanted to see what it would really be like.

And that brings me to this: the reality of a dream is very different than the idea of a dream.

Imagining Vermont life while talking to your friends on a beach in Santa Monica is different than living Vermont life in actual Vermont where many days our only friends around are birds and trees and other various non-humans. It’s different in both impossible-to-imagine better ways and impossible-to-imagine more difficult ways. 

We did soak up some time with friends, family, and sunshine in LA for two weeks in April, though.

Another reflection I have to offer is this: winter in Vermont is breathtakingly beautiful. The various kinds of snow and the deep, blue sky the day after a snow storm were some of the awe inspiring surprises I didn’t expect. It’s really fulfilling to be surrounded by that kind of dramatic beauty. The woods are hushed during and after a fresh, thick snow. It’s a sacred kind of quiet that I had forgotten. Plus, ice skating on the pond in the early winter (when it was nice and glassy smooth) was an actual dream come true. 

Winter sunrises are exceptional.

Heating our house with firewood was a large amount of work for Collin. We all helped when we could, but Collin took on the large majority of that work this year. The scouting out good trees, felling them with the chain saw, cutting them into logs, splitting them with an axe, and then keeping the fire going—it was a HUGE thing. So, this is a big shout out to him for keeping us warm all winter. We were warm and also got to enjoy the beauty and aesthetics of a crackling fire while we read Lord of the Rings all winter. We baked fresh bread most days (Senya took a real interest in making her own bread after enough collaborative practice), and the coziness factor inside the home was at an all time high.

Is there any felicity in the world superior to freshly baked bread?

One of my favorite experiences here so far was the sugaring season and the process of making maple syrup from the maple sap we collected in our woods. We ended up with a little more than 4 gallons of the most delicious maple syrup that I’ve ever had. Some of our dear friends came out from California and got to begin this process with us. It was really special and fun to have them here to identify the trees, drill the holds, set up the buckets and lines, and make the initial batch of syrup. 

The intensity of the sap run really began a few weeks later and lasted about two solid weeks for us.

The moment our first batch hit 219 degrees (syrup).

I posted a picture of our maple syrup bounty after our intense two-week sugaring season, and I got so many encouraging and supportive “high-five!!” type comments. Some people even asked if they could buy some! And while I honestly have several internal organs I’d be quicker to sell than a pint of this syrup, the kindness and enthusiasm wasn’t lost on me. We just had a small bucket operation this year which means that I was hauling like 40 pounds of sap in buckets from one part of our 64 acre property to another REALLY far away (it always seemed) part of our property. 

And when you think of that, you may feel an empathic twinge in your forearms or biceps like—“whew! That takes some muscle!” But what you might not realize is that it takes a lot of patience, too. You can’t walk very quickly, you see, or the heavy buckets slam against the sides of your legs as you carry them. Also, it splashes out if you become a little too sloppy or quick with your pace. 

So, it’s like a meditation of sorts (intermittently spliced with some expletives when I’d spill or trip) to carry each bucket far across the land to the holding tank. Collin happened to be away for work during the height of the sap run, so I filled our 65 gallon holding tank so he could evaporate it when he returned. I just couldn’t bear to see the sap buckets overflow knowing that it could all be transformed into one of the most sensational food experiences with a bit of hard work. One morning, after a fresh 15 inches of snow, I tried to save myself some heavy lifting and put 20 gallons of sap in buckets on a sled. As I tugged it to begin, the buckets fell over and spilled about 10 gallons of sap. ****ing physics, right? I need to work on my meditation skills for moments like that (and brush up on my laws of motion, too).

So yes. Here we are in rural Vermont living our dream. And sometimes it is laughably difficult. And I’m like “Why? Why was falling on the ice when you’re trying to take the trash out down your extremely long and steep driveway YOUR DREAM, LINDSAY??? Living 8 minutes from the beach was a pretty good dream!!!!” 

Juniper drinking fresh sap.

Other times it’s difficult in ways that aren’t laughable. They’re just downright hard in ways that didn’t exist in Los Angeles—like there are moments when I’m literally ready to put a “For Sale” sign in the yard (that no one would see because we live a mile up a mountain, but still). 

My mom stayed for a week while Collin was away during mud season.

And yet, it is so poignantly, beautiful to live this life that I cry and I squeeze Collin’s hand as we are walking through our gorgeous woods of paper birch, beech, pine, and sugar maples for sheer overwhelm at the sacredness of this experience. 

Some of these warm spring days I realize our home is quiet, and I can’t find the kids until I spot them up on a hill in the woods or see them running through the verdant, grassy yard surrounding the pond. Often, I watch my good, old Zuri dog sit by the stream in quiet, perfect happiness living her best, senior dog life. The other night after we had moved the chickens to the barn, started our vegetable garden plants inside,  and planted fruit trees oustide, Juniper said “You know, little by little, I think we are kind of making a farm here.” And I watch the joy spread on her face like the sunrise fills the dawn sky as the realization of how HER dreams are coming into reality occurs to her. And lately, I am filled with deep content and gratitude when Senya and her “neighbor” friend (who lives a half mile away through the woods and over the mountain) come running back down our mountain together holding hands, laughing and barrelling down the steep slope excited to build outdoor aquariums for the newts and frogs, make flower and weed potions, or build forts in the woods. 

The full range of emotions are awakened this year as we all keep our hearts open to all that life has to teach us in this adventure. It isn’t an instant IV drip of happiness. There is a reason that the phrase “Vermont Strong” exists here (and I wouldn’t claim that I am that, yet). But it surely is meaningful, and I will always remember this first winter and spring in Vermont. 

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Mind the Gap: Existential Anxiety

It all goes back to when everything was a singularity—when all the matter that existed was on top of itself and time didn’t yet exist. I mean, that’s really backing up a lot, but really, I do think it starts there. I like to think of this as the time when collective consciousness was as infinite in its own density as all physical matter was. Everything was one. Then, the universe exploded into existence and then all the laws of physics as we now know them arose and here we are—separate, individuated in our own experiences. 

We experience life in separate bodies and minds and it can be very unsettling. It becomes especially unsettling when we become acutely aware of it. Once we realize there is an “I” we also realize that our consciousness is separate from our bodies. We also realize that our consciousness is individuated from everything else. There is a gap—a lack—a space that keeps us from being entirely integrated. It also keeps us from entirely connecting to all that is not “I”. I think that this self-awareness and individuation is the source of our existential anxiety. 

Once this awareness of the gap arises in us, we can either deny it or accept it. If we try to deny it, we are most likely trying to distract ourselves from thinking too much, feeling too much, or being quiet for long enough that we sense it. Distraction usually looks like avoidant behaviors that disconnect us more from ourselves and others, though they tempt us with the hope of escape. If we accept that there is this gap between our consciousness and existence, we can own that chase for wholeness and integration. And this is different than the chase owning us. This can mean that we embrace the reality of that gap and find ways to connect back to wholeness.

I think noticing when we feel this gap and when we feel detached from wholeness makes all the difference. The irony is, it is a universal human experience to feel that way. Sometimes just realizing that it’s part of being human can tie us back into the feeling of being connected to more than ourselves. 

Also, once we’ve noticed that we sense this gap, we can decide how we want to chase wholeness. When we do the things that connect us back to our sense of vitality, I believe we temporarily fuse that gap. We all know feeling when we achieve flow and that feeling when we lose track of time and ourselves—that is when I think we temporarily bond back to more in the Universe than just our small self and forget that we exist separately. We become integrated. We forget our self, and we become part of a bigger flow of energy. Spirituality, love, sex, music, art, poetry, comedy, adventure, theatre, sports, dance, chivalry, social justice—these are all good things that are born from that chase to fill the gap. 

What we choose to do with this gap is up to us. But the fact that it is there is the consequence of having a separate consciousness. And the universe is still expanding. So, it’s going to be a long time before it collapses again and returns to a singularity. 

At different points in life we become more or less acutely aware of the gap between our existence and our ability to reflect on it. I remember the first time I became aware of my own consciousness and existence. I was 6 and in first grade. I was walking to get a piece of candy from my teacher for getting a 99% on my spelling test, and I had the thought “I am in this body, and I exist.” And I almost fainted entirely, but came to when I fell into a desk. 

After that initial realization, a lot of us are able to normalize our finitude and our separate-ness and we just go back to a state of childhood. We get swept up in the early part of life with all the firsts and novelty of discovering life. Then we get into adolescence and early adulthood and we revisit these existential questions. Then maybe we hit another groove in the upswing of figuring out who we are, living and chasing dreams, and building the life we want. Then we hit midlife, and there it is again and with the special twist that we are noticeably aging. The finitude of our mortal life becomes a reality. I think the anxiety and grief caused by this gap and awareness of it is more or less acute at different points in the timeline of our lifespan. That’s another thing that didn’t exist when everything was a singularity: time. 

I’ve decided to accept that this gap is part of the human condition and make my peace with it. Sometimes it’s extremely uncomfortable, and I feel my soul squirming and seeking resolve. If the universe hadn’t exploded into existence and we hadn’t all individuated, we wouldn’t have this existential separation anxiety. This gap may be the source of gnawing existential angst, and it may cause us to feel detached from our life without realizing why. Existential angst can present emotional and psychological challenges for humans and make life emotionally complex. 

BUT

The unique challenge of being a self-aware and individuated human and the journey back and forth between those moments of wholeness and integration—it’s what allows us to be painters, writers, comedians, dancers, therapists, gardeners, creators, adventurers, revolutionaries, philosophers, logicians, lovers…the best of what humanity can be. It’s what allows us to rise above mere instinct and biology and become closer to who and what our ideals are. It’s what allows us to give our stories, describe our experience, and share with one another. That gap is where the gems of creativity and inspiration are formed. And when we mine that gap in our souls for meaning and for art, for love and beauty, for courage and just action, for poetry and story— we give ourselves and each other glimpses of wholeness and perfection. 

Conclusion: Mind the gap. Embrace its reality. Learn how to harness the angst. Learn how to connect meaningfully to more than yourself—others, nature, transcendent experiences. 

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A Place to Call Home (part II)

I went out walking in the woods today in the rain. I felt like the main character of a fairy tale. My heart was bursting with wonder and curiosity. After living in a Mediterranean climate that has been in an decade+ drought, I am in awe. I can’t help but marvel at the bubbling streams that meander all along the land and the waterfalls that cascade down moss-draped marble cliffs. The crystal clear pond is surrounded by a verdant green carpet of grass. I discovered a sacred symbol etched into a rock slab. Everywhere I walk or stand, I can feel the amazing vitality of this place.

It’s very different than the dramatic beauty of the west coast that I came to love—where the towering cliffs and mountains meet the sparkling, blue sea. When I moved there, that was exactly what my soul needed. Space. Expanse. Dramatic beauty that made my questions and internal struggles feel small in comparison. I craved anonymity amongst the 20 million people there. I took comfort in the likelihood that within that high population, there would be at least a handful of likeminded souls. There, I felt as though I was a small speck witnessing the grandeur of something vast. It was difficult for me to imagine the transition back to this very different kind of ecosystem. Yet my heart kept feeling tugged back to the woods, the streams, the rich, dark earth, and a place where flourishing life is sustainable.

We looked at many beautiful houses and amazing properties through the years, but none of them ever felt right. Some of them seemed so perfect on paper and logically they met the criteria we had, and I felt crazy with dissonance when my heart wouldn’t allow me to go through with it.

But then once I stepped foot onto this land, the natural beauty felt so personal, it captured my heart in a different way. It felt like we were meant for each other, this place and me. It’s a relational kind of experience to be here among these moss-covered boulders, crystal clear streams with pebbly beds, the rolling hills, the towering oaks and magnificent paper birch trees. The willows that grow right at the edge of the pond, the plum trees and berry bushes that are generous with their fruit in the summer, the fact that the power lines are all buried underground so there’s no buzz or sight of them from our home—these are all such meaningful details to me. The wooden and stone walkways and spots for meditation designed by the Buddhists who originally built this place as their retreat center all feel exactly perfect.

With the Taconic mountains in the distance as our backdrop, I am ever aware of nature’s grandeur, but I live presently within the more intimate context of my own, microcosm of wonder. It inspires me to greet each tree and boulder as if it’s a friend, and in my heart I do. I’ve dreamed of this space for so long, and every detail—even ones I didn’t consciously know I hoped for—are realized here.

Each of these past 4 mornings when I’ve woken up and looked out my window, I’ve been surprised with humble gratitude that this is my home. It is the kind of magical place that is alive and has its own soul. The other night my uncles had us over to dinner to welcome us to Vermont. They have lived in and loved many sacred places through the years, and they shared with me some wisdom that resonated deeply, “we never own these sacred places; we are merely their keepers for a time.”

And for this time we’ve been granted, I’m grateful.

When I was first thinking of leaving Topanga, California, to move here, I was afraid that I’d feel disconnected and isolated. Though we lived in a small mountain town where I could hike for miles with barely a soul passing me as I walked, our house was situated right between two roads. One road was only somewhat busy, but the other was traveled by 30,000 cars a day. And while that was unpleasant in terms of noise pollution, I never felt too remote or isolated.

Here, the long gravel road leading to our residence leads to home for only a few. Our closest neighbor is a half a mile down, so we don’t hear or see any other cars unless we go at least that distance.

To my surprise and relief, though, I don’t feel isolated. I feel more connected to my own life than I’ve ever felt because of this magical place. I’m also then able to really connect with the vitality of the nature surrounding me per se. And it feels so real—so accessibly nourishing—to my soul. I feel that paying attention to what’s around us here makes me aware of how genius this world is. The plants, the patterns, the cycles, the balance—there’s so much to absorb with awe.

Being here provides endless opportunities for learning. Senya and Juniper must feel inspired too; they’re either playing outside, and reveling in all this land and water to interact with, or they’re in our workshop area making things. They seem to have been caught up in a current of creativity. I won’t hear from them for an hour, so I’ll go to check on them and they’re quietly lost in the flow of making—making paintings, sculptures, drawings, little boats to float in the pond and down the stream—all sorts of things.

And so far, the families that we’ve met through our WiSe Forest School have welcomed us and included us right into their tribe here. We had our first lantern walk/potluck last night and got to know lots of our neighbors (‘neighbors’ means they live anywhere within a 20 minute drive, I think). We talked with people about their lives, and they asked us all about our story and how we came to Pawlet. They’re an inspiring bunch of people who all share the value of living sustainably within the land, making all sorts of artisan things, caring for the earth, caring for their families, and enjoying this beautiful life we all have.

I miss our dear people in California, but I find comfort and a sense of closeness in my heart knowing that they will love it here when they come visit. I have a dream of developing this back into a place for family retreats, and I’m hoping that my friends from Los Angeles who want to experience this life (but can’t or wouldn’t want to do that full-time) can have a place to come for a few weeks each year to engage with this magical place.

But for now, it’s a beautiful place to call home, and we are grateful for all the wonder and beauty that so tangibly surrounds us here.

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Transcendent Love

Continuing the chronicles of my spiritual journey…

Last August, I took a course that I absolutely loved. It was an introduction to a contemplative educational philosophy, and it required a lot of inner work and reflection. At the center of the philosophy, the core goal is vitality. According to this philosophy, connection to one’s own sense of core vitality (that transcendent feeling when we are plugged into a Life source that is in us and everything else) is the ultimate goal of life.

It’s a worthy goal, to be sure. And yet something in me felt unsettled. And so in class, when we are discussing what the ultimate goal for our children is, I proposed that my ultimate goal for Senya and Juniper is to truly know, believe, and experience that they are Loved. My instructor asked me why this is important, and I fumbled for something to say, but it was mumble jumble from what I recall.

And so, I started asking the Universe, “why is this important to me? Why do I get so sad if I think that Love isn’t that core vitality?” That made me want to crawl into bed and not get out, honestly. To think that our own experience is the end-all, be-all really bums me out. Why? I haven’t considered myself a Christian for quite some years now because I didn’t want to meet the qualifications (I wrote about this in my last post). But, yet, when asked to part with this idea of Love being the ultimate core goal of life (and Life itself) I couldn’t quite do it. Was I merely being sentimental? Or is this one of the remnants from my Christian faith that I truly believe and experientially know to be true?

And so, as is often the case, the Universe sent me a lovely lesson in why Love is so important. It came wrapped up in a package of someone coming into my life—my inner circle of friends— who was very difficult for me to love. What a lovely, gift! Ha.

Within months, I was convinced this person was unsafe emotionally, and I had a few diagonoses in mind for why they were so difficult. Certainly, it wasn’t my problem! I mean, just look around; everyone else likes me. When I see myself through that person’s eyes, or that person’s, I get to keep my likeable self-image. But when I see myself through this person’s eyes, I feel inadquate, unimportant, and unlikeable.

So, what I was experiencing was an ego problem, but I didn’t know that then.

A lot of people call the kind of work having to do with confronting and then letting go of our ego, shadow work. The thing about shadow work is that it is often embarrassing. It is the kind of inner work that requires one to come face to face with the ugliness, short comings, and flaws that we so often like to overlook.

This past year my heart went to an ugly place, but I didn’t recognize it as that for quite some time. I named the place of resentment, distrust, and blame “intuition, justice, and accountability.” If I had taken a step back long enough to objectively examine my life, I would have been able to recognize a few telling signs that I was living out of synch with my core vitality (aka, that sacred birthright connection to Love was experiencing some major interference).

When I’m connected to my core vitality, and I experience daily stressors (big feelings off-loaded by my children) or major life stressors (our house went back on the market which puts us in a tenuous state of housing insecurity), I cope by running in the mountains, writing out my thoughts, eating well and sleeping adequately, and making time for mediation or reflection.

When I’m disconnected from my core vitality, I cope with the daily and major stresses of life by drinking alcohol more frequently and as a means to relieve stress and eating less healthy foods as a means of instant gratification.

Now, the former types of stress-coping requires that I actually stay conscious. The latter is actually the opposite. It is an instant easy button to dull my consciousness so that I can take a mini vacation from my own self, basically.

The trouble is this latter form of stress coping catches up with me sooner or later. Because I’m not actually processing through anything on a physiological level (actually sweating out some of those stress hormones) or cognitively (thinking through things to gain some perspective) or emotionally (staying in the feelings long enough to actually move through them) or spiritually (connecting with a sense of Meaning greater than just me and finding guidance or meditating and noticing the intrusive thoughts and what their themes are), it’s all just festering– fermenting–if you will.

But I wasn’t willing or wanting to look objectively at my own flaws. Because, yuck. That feels bad. And unless you are SURE you are loved unconditionally, then it really feels threatening to the point of annihilation to look honestly into the face of our own ugliness.

So, I tried to explain and argue and logically justify all my ugliness. Blaming the other person and finding fault in them is so much easier because then we don’t have to admit that we have gone way off course. Then we can still stay confident that we are on the right path. And of course, my path is Love, so all this in the name of Love.

And that’s where I became stuck. Anger to the point of villainizing someone, resentment to the point of devaluing them, and distrust to the point of suspicion about their behvaior…that doesn’t sound like love. “Okay,” I’d argue with myself, “but maybe then it’s justice. I mean, just listen to this list of things this person did that hurt my feelings!” “Hmmm, justice without love, is that what you believe in? Let’s look throughout history and see what good ever came of that? Or how about right now in society? Justice without love is often the gateway to atrocities.” “UGHHHHHH. Take a hike, conscience.”

But once my conscience has spoken, however quietly amidst the louder voices of my ego, it’s not long before I have to listen if I want any peace at all. In my dreams, in my thoughts, it starts to leak into my psyche. That fermenting mass of emotion starts to bubble up into every bit of my mind. It seems all of life reminds me of this conflict, this situation, this problem. And I can’t find resolution. And I want to be present with my kids, but instead I’m 3 miles deep in a cave of unresolved ill will and negative feelings.

So, then, it’s time to face the mirror. The True Mirror. The one that when you close the door, close your eyes, and fold in half on the floor in absolute fatigue from constantly avoiding it…is reflecting you honestly. You see your flaws, you see your ugly thoughts and actions, you see your pathetic attempts at trying to defend your ego and appeal to moral high ground while sinking lower into the abyss of self pity and resentment. Ugh. Not pleasant.

But wait a minute, that is not the end of the story. There is something else here, reflecting back at me. There is Love. There is that mystery that I was wondering about 9 months prior—this is why Love is so important to me. It’s the beginning and the end, and it’s what saves me in the midst of my own ego. Exactly as I am, there is Love here for me. There was still Love for me even when I was avoiding this mirror, drinking and eating those potato chips at midnight for weeks on end. There is an overwhelming stream of love carrying me, reminding me that I’m one drop of water, and it’s time to rejoin the sea. And so I do.

And now, there is one more thing my conscience asks me to do, and that is to apologize to the person toward whom I’ve harbored so much ill will. Here is another reason that Love is so important to me; it guides me. And so I do, now not needing anything in return. Knowing that I’m responsible for my own feelings, actions, and self and that regaining that connection to Love is all I need to humble myself and admit that I went off course. I didn’t need to apologize to earn Love; Love is self existing in it’s own right. Love can not be earned and can not be lost. Our connection to Love, however, can sometimes experience some interference. And restoring that connection is always possible, but it sometimes requires action.

I go for a walk with a friend in the mountains one day after all this, and I tell her that my eating and drinking habits have sucked for the past few months. And she suggests that I get a mindless hobby and also limit drinking to weekends only. So, I take this advice, and buy a pair of roller skates and only drink on the weekends, start running again, and life started feeling even better than ever.

All of this is tied to our quest for a physical home, to be sure. And the revelation that I had in the midst of trying to relocate was that home begins within us. And I had to get that home repaired first and foremost.

Anyway, here’s the crux of what I learned:

Transcendent Love is something that can not be earned and can not be lost. When we genuinely accept that the core of our vitality, the right to belong, to be loved, to connect meaningfully with Life itself (here some would interchange Life with God) is our sacred birthright, then we can exhale. We can let down our defenses and move beyond the impulse to self-preserve.

Our connection to Love and Life can be badly obscured (there are plenty of examples in our own lives and society at large), but going three miles deep into a dark cave does not mean the sun itself is gone. It’s still shining outside, there for you when you emerge.

Posted in behavior change, faith, family, religion, spirituality | 6 Comments