Word Search, Life Learning

Dawdling one afternoon in a gift shop in my D.C. neighborhood, this book caught my eye: Bet You Can’t Do This!

For less than $8, the book has already provided hours of entertainment, and I’m not even halfway through. I tackle one or two puzzles most nights before lights out.

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The trick is that the puzzles contain words not listed. You need to think about the subject matter. A search for extinct animals included “woolly mammoth” and “dodo.” Not listed were “ptarpan” and “giant sloth.”

Some searches provide the comfort of familiarity. I aced a puzzle on California city names, having lived in and explored the Golden State for many years, and another on ice cream flavors. (In high school I scooped my share as a Haagen Dazs and Thomas Sweet server.) I struggled over a puzzle with words from Mardi Gras.

U.S. Presidents, Greek gods…many of the puzzles review vocabulary learned in grade school. (In the “First Ladies” puzzle, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was listed along with Michelle Obama. Martha Washington and Helen Taft were the unknowns.)

The book’s final word finds don’t list searchable words at all, only the topic. Early on, I thought I’d outsmart the system and work through the book back to front. The 92nd puzzle of the 115,”9-letter C words,” was the third I tried.

But my mind wasn’t primed. I ended up peeking at the answers like a fifth-grade math student keeping a finger on the solutions page at the end of the textbook.

Sometimes rushing ahead takes away the fun of solving and learning.

After all, isn’t all learning a process of solving?

We emphasize in meditation and yoga the necessity of learning with a “beginner’s mind.” Most of us have stories of taking on too much too early in practice. I know I do: letting my feet fall asleep in meditation so that when I stood up I stumbled; wrenching myself into backbend I hadn’t prepped for and tweaking my neck.

The arrogance of the over-eager.

The word “arrogance” translates from Latin, “claiming for oneself.” That sounds greedy.

The word searches remind me to take things slowly, steadily and systematically.

Confession: Even though I’m progressing through the puzzles step-by-step, I do peek ahead at those to come.

In “Y Words,” “yoga” jumped out at me. I humored my fervor by marking it, a word I read, think and say a zillion times a day.

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Soon I’ll finish the “Y” puzzle, uncovering the rest of these words.

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Each little letter cluster is rich in associations. There’s “yahoo,” the address of my first email account; “yardstick,” an essential tool when I taught middle school (for pointing and drawing straight lines!); “yellow,” my favorite color the summer of 2002; “yeast,” the smell of a bread-baking phase using Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Bread Book, which took me deeper into Zen; “yearling,” the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings story given to me one Christmas by my grandmother, I reread it every few years; “yesterday,” the great Beatles song….

Thank you John Samson for writing the word search book.

Propped by pillows, holding my highlighter as late night sounds of the city seep through the windows–pedestrians’ laughter, sirens, helicopters, revved engines–these searches transition me from a yoga teacher and writer’s daytime seeking to a dreamer’s nighttime sifting.

The word “search” derives from Latin’s “circle.” These (not-so-simple) puzzles take me into the mind’s treasure chest of antecedents while anchoring me in the present. It’s as if the purple pen marks the line between right and left hemispheres and in so doing imaginatively draws them together. Yoga.

 

Art of Stillness

Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our creations come not when we’re out in the world, gathering impressions, but when we’re sitting still, turning those impressions into sentences. Our job, you could say, is to turn, through stillness, a life of movement into art. – Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness

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Matt Weiser of Lodestar Knife & Tool working out a new design along Sacramento’s American River. Photo by Alexa Mergen

being a writer

Reading the essays in A House of My Own by Sandra Cisneros is like pulling back curtains of silk and velvet to peek through a window’s changing view.

To an earlier essay in which she wrote, “…I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be than a writer,” Cisneros adds the note*,

*At fifty-nine, I can think of plenty of things I’d rather be than a writer: a curandera; a cartoon voice-over actor; a flamenco dancer; a bandoneon player; an opera singer; a comedienne; a shoe designer; a medium; a milliner; a popcorn vendor; a florist; a mattress tester; a dog sitter; a window dresser; a textile curator; a henna hand painter; a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Anything more social.

Edouard Manet, “The Old Musician”

For more on thinking about being–and what it means to be–a writer, I recommend: Julia Alvarez, Something to Declare;  Molly Peacock, Paradise, Piece by Piece; Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings; Julius Lester, On Writing for Children and Other People; Jack London, Martin Eden. There are of course, loads more!

Earth & Eros

I’m pleased to offer this excerpt from the preface to the new book Earth & Eros: A Celebration in Words and Photographs, edited by Lorraine Anderson. I interviewed Lorraine for “Drawing Closer,” an essay on women poets and nature in the third millennium published in Her Circle. Lorraine and I share a curiosity about what it means to experience intimacy with the world through breathing, moving, speaking and listening.

Earth & Eros brings together prose and poetry by nearly seventy authors—including Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Pablo Neruda, Diane Ackerman, D. H. Lawrence, and Louise Erdrich—to celebrate the sacred erotic dimension of humans’ relationship to the earth. Foreword by Robert Michael Pyle and photographs by Bruce Hodge.

Check out, as well, Lorraine’s Sisters of the Earth.

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Eros. The irresistible siren of desire. The red cord of passion. The hunger that cries to be filled, the thirst that must be quenched. The mysterious force that propels every life form, pushing roses to bloom, hummingbirds to migrate, and salmon to swim upriver to spawn. The force of life seeking to fulfill itself, reaching, surging, expanding, unfolding. The life force that connects us to ourselves, to other humans, to all other living beings on the earth, and to the earth as a living being.

Eros encompasses our sensuality and sexuality, yes, but it embraces so much more—the deepest longings of body, heart, and soul, our deepest roots in earth. “Eros is the bond in the ecological communion within which we live. It is not primarily an emotion, a decision, or the result of an act of will. It is the mutuality linking cell to cell, animal to environment, without which we would not be,” writes philosopher Sam Keen in The Passionate Life.

Eros in our world is most often narrowly understood as romantic and sexual love and lust between humans. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the earth is so often treated as an object to be bent to our own uses rather than as an intimate partner to be loved, respected, appreciated, and revered. Perhaps there is a relationship between our limited concept of eros and our narrow valuing of nature solely for the “resources” it provides us with. We have forgotten the intimate, erotic relationship between our bodies and the earth, and the consequences are all around us.

. . .

“Oh, what a catastrophe, what a maiming of love when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and the setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox! This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars,” wrote novelist D. H. Lawrence. Is there a different way of inhabiting our bodies and the earth? Eros, the force of desire, says yes.

Stop and take a deep breath. Breathe the air down into your heart, into your pelvis, into your toes. Feel your body as the earth of you, as a part of the larger body of the earth; feel yourself as a wild creature connected to a wild longing for health, wholeness, communion. Experience your deepest cravings. Know that the well-being of the earth depends on your passionate pursuit of what you most deeply desire in your cells, which is life abundant and overflowing.

What Cisneros knows

So much wisdom is packed into A House of My Own, I found myself texting quotes to friends as I read along.

Thank you, Sandra Cisneros.

 I don’t know anything, but I know this: whatever is done with love, in the name of others, without self-gain, whatever is done with the heart on behalf of someone or something, be it a child, animal, vegetable, rock, person, cloud, whatever work we make with complete humility, will always come out beautifully, and something more valuable than fame or money will come. This I know.

 

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, “The Artist’s Studio”

For mermaids

This storm-tossed mermaid hailed me as I walked to a yoga student’s house yesterday.

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After a visit, I took my leave and stepped from her winter sun.

For mermaids everywhere, here’s a piece of A. J. M. Smith’s poem from Poetry, 1941.

Where salt translucency’s green branches bear
This sea-rose, a lost mermaid, whose cold cave,
Left lightless now, the lapping seatides lave
At base of Okeanos’ twisted stair.

 

 

Yoga for bones, brains and breath; gratitude for all

A 10-year study involving 741 people shows that yoga may reverse bone loss and be an effective therapy for osteoporosis.  The study was led by Dr. Loren M. Fishman of Columbia University. He says,

Yoga puts more pressure on bone than gravity does. By opposing one group of muscles against another, it stimulates osteocytes, the bone-making cells.

Participants practiced 12 poses for 30 seconds each including tree, triangle, warrior II and corpse.

Reading the findings reminded me of my grandmother, Helen, who was overtaken by osteoporosis during the last 30 years of her life. The condition culminated in a deeply hunched spine that formed a carapace. In her final decade she slept sitting up. Her bones cracked and creaked. Pain was a constant that restricted her social life.

Visiting one summer, a teenager armed with a learner’s permit, I drove her to a breathing class at the local hospital. Being able to be with her breath changed her relationship with herself, but there was no reversing the tiny fractures in her spine.

That same year, on a dusty shelf in the hallway of her Henderson, Nevada tract home, I found Yoga Made Easy (1966).

Sally Ride. Trailblazer.

This was the 1980s. “Star Wars” was the president’s missile interception plan; Sally Ride traveled beyond; Microsoft released its Word program; that Christmas I’d receive the original Swatch watch.

Folding back the books’s binding, I cleared a space on the gold rug that covered the blue linoleum of my room’s floor, and set to, swamp cooler blowing. Cobra, lion’s breath, cat and cow. That many of the poses were named for animals made sense.

My recollection is of the book on the left.

Helen had a mug of black tea with milk and a plate of homemade French bread, toasted and golden with butter, topped with homemade plum jam, waiting when I emerged.

With the perspective of life’s twin tracks of joy and sorrow that have carried me through her death, and those of others, and into a life of movement, imagination, healing and teaching, I see how fortunate I am to have had the time to pursue my interests, then and now.

Through childhood and into adulthood, when I was painting, my grandmother sent brushes; when I was writing, she sent blank journals and poetry books; when I was teaching school, she sent children’s books; when I moved into a house with the man I’d marry, she sent a check to buy myself a desk, adamant that I set up a creative space where I could keep my things at the ready to receive inspiration.

In the preface to Sara Avant Stover’s The Way of the Happy Woman, Kate Northrup Moller writes,

Sara and I stand on the shoulders of the generations of women who came before us. Our path to listening to our bodies’ wisdom, taking the time to discover who we really are, and allowing ourselves to tell the truth that has been paved by the struggles and victories of our mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers….The reason that we have the luxury of spending time in self-discovery mode–whether in Thailand, on a road trip, or in our own hometown–is because our foremothers…have unlocked the doors for us.

I think I speak for…our entire generation when I say that we feel deep gratitude for those who have come before us….Many of these women had to endure sexism, financial upheaval, emotional or physical abuse, miserable marriages, difficult pregnancies, and feelings of loneliness and self-loss while raising families and navigating the often competing roles of women as mothers, daughters, lovers, wives, friends, business owners, seekers, leaders, activists, and human beings….

Indeed. Thank you, foremothers.

In Buddhism, they say that everyone has been or could be your mother.

Try looking this week with eyes of kindness on women and all beings.

And in so far as you are able: Enjoy this hour, this day, this week, month, year!

Embody joy!

Give someone a warm winter hug.

Need another incentive to practice yoga? This study suggests it’s brain training.

Another study finds breathing, which attunes us to the body, helps us cope with stress. 

Simple, Joyful Yoga.

 

Fragrant granola

Chop your own wood and it will warm you twice, the saying goes.

The same applies to making your own granola.

Baking this scrumptious concoction fragrances and cozies up the kitchen.

Munching a bowlful brings smiles to the face and contentment to the belly.

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Fragrant granola

WHAT

  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 ½ cups raw pistachios, hulled
  • 1 cup raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
  • 1 cup coconut flakes
  • ¾ cup pure maple syrup
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher or coarse sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground cardamom
  • ¾ cup chopped dried cherries (preferably unsweetened)

HOW

  1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
  2. In a large bowl, combine oats, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, coconut chips, maple syrup, olive oil, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and cardamom. Spread mixture in an even layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes for +10 + 20 +30 and then + 15 minutes, until golden.
  3. Transfer granola to a large bowl and add dried cherries, tossing to combine.
  4. To serve, layer in a good-sized cereal bowl from bottom to top: a handful of granola, a dollop of yogurt, a few slices of banana, a sprinkle of granola, a dab of yogurt, a scattering of berries or other fresh fruit, a drizzle of honey. You can serve with non-dairy yogurt and agave syrup instead of yogurt and honey, if desired.

Full disclosure: This is Matt’s speciality.

Tip: We store the granola in a plastic pitcher so it’s easy to pour.

Suggestion: When berries are scarce, serve with shredded or diced apple or diced pears. Substitute kefir for the yogurt.

Credit: Adapted from Olive Oil Granola by super recipe writer Melissa Clark

Stay calm and keep still

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A neighborhood garden a few days before January’s snowfall. Photo by Matt Weiser.

STILLNESS CAME to D.C. this January with 36 hours of snowfall.

“Snowzilla” stalled buses, planes, Metrorail and cars. Shops closed. People stayed home. Pets hunkered down.

It was quiet. It was calm.

Then, upon the sun’s return, the city of 700,000 had no choice but to stir.

Movement is inherent to life. Time and space are precious commodities in a city’s busy-ness.

Yet, one action, the snow reminds us, is always available: stilling.

“Stand still.”

This imperative begins the poem “Lost,” by David Wagoner.

“Wherever you are is called Here,” the speaker continues.

Stillness is an intentional pause to think, listen and notice the external world, to observe one’s internal state; it transforms our relationship with time and space and often ourselves.

A moment of stillness is like a brief journey to another place.

“When the body is able to find some quiet,” explains Reverend Inryu of All Beings Zen community in Adams Morgan, “the mind has an opportunity to quiet down.”

Stillness is a precursor of meditation. One settles on a chair or on a cushion, organizing the skin, tissues, muscles and bones of the body to find a steady seat.

Even in the movement of walking meditation, a person cultivates a sense of internal stillness, clearing the sky of the mind. In group walking meditation, the custom is to take the pace of the most unhurried walker, voluntarily slowing. Notions of compassion and interconnection correlate with stillness. Inryu points out that all religions include contemplative practices for quiet retreat.

“Stillness has a lot of virtues,” agrees Washington, D.C., area bird watcher Nick Lund, who blogs at The Birdist, “and one of them is seeing how quickly everything else is moving. There’s a relativity there.”

We know that as long as we’re alive, we’re never truly still. However, by identifying gradations of movement, we increase awareness of ourselves and others.

“Birding is not particularly still in general,” Lund clarifies, “but when you’re in the woods, especially at this time of year when the woods can seem empty and quiet, you can just stop and close your eyes and be perfectly still and listen, and that’s when you start to pick up on how active everything else is. You start hearing birds and squirrels and all the other animals, people and dogs moving around.”

In a room, where meditators typically keep their eyes open, “being settled may open up a vantage to be more aware of what’s happening in the moment,” Inryu explains. “That can be a lot of activity, shifting sunlight or moonlight, shadows on the walls, the breathing and adjusting of people in the room.”

Inryu describes a quality of peace with our essential essence that comes from slowing down so completely. This peace allows us to be present.

“I think of being still as an opportunity to create conditions where you can be a human in your being aspect, rather than your doing aspect,” Inryu says.

Read the entire article on My Little Bird.