Monday, June 30, 2014

On which side of the door did you place your KIA?

There was a young monk who wanted to study with a widely respected teacher. He knew this teacher only accepted the most promising students so he studied the texts, memorized wise sayings and practiced looking impressively serene. Finally he gained an appointment for an interview with the master.

On the morning of his interview it was raining heavily. The young monk set out for the teacher's house carrying his umbrella. When he reached the teacher's house he removed his muddy shoes, closed his umbrella, sat it aside, adjusted his robes and rang the bell.

Once inside he sat where the attendant indicated and waited. After a while the teacher came in. The young monk jumped to his feet.

Now, I drive a bright red KIA Soul, which I park in stall 76 which is to the right of the double entry doors on the south side of our building. I love my little car, which was a gift from my two wonderful sons. It's easy to drive, I can get in and out of it without dislocating anything, the small back trunk area holds the wheelchair, the walker or my grocery cart. It's the perfect car for me.

So I was more than a little perplexed when my neighbour hammered insistently on my door yesterday afternoon to tell me that a tow truck was towing my car away! I wobbled after him as quickly as I could, the driver was securing the last wheel to the trolley as we arrived in the parking lot. My KIA was not in its usual stall.

My first question was; "What is my car doing here? Did you move it?"

"No," he said, "it's been ticketed to be towed for being illegally parked here. We received a complaint that your car was parked in this stall, which belongs to someone else."

It was stall 66. Ten stalls in the line-up short of my stall. (Gobsmack)

I'd made a quick trip to the Walmart the day before, to try and find tomato cages or braces or anything that would keep the topiaries we'd placed in the big concrete pots out front from toppling over. I wanted the bases secured to concrete blocks and buried in the gravel, but I could not get the young men doing the work to do it the way I wanted. They put the blocks in, wrapped a strand of wire around and left the pots perched on top of the gravel. We've had 60 mph winds the last few days, and I've rung myself out trying to wire the darn things down better, but they just flop over again. 

They had no tomato cages, no braces that I could see how to implement. I came home with two iron cage-like things - obelisks - for the garden. They were heavy. Some assembly required. I got them unpacked, clipped off all the plastic rings and tags I wouldn't be able to reach once they were in place and put them together. They were a foot taller than I am, but after struggling to get the first one on I learned that they were too narrow to encircle the topiaries. A real topiary yes, one made of whatever solid material fake topiaries are made of - no.

They were going to stand a good foot higher then the top, and lack a good foot from reaching the gravel at the base of the pot. I could have cried. If I'd had the strength to take them off and take them apart I'd have taken them back, but I had none of that. So I came inside, got some grape ivy greenery I've had for like 20 years and wired the bottom rung of the obelisks to the wire holding the pots.

By now I was wringing wet, weak and getting a bit befuddled, as I do when I'm tired. I slammed the trunk of the KIA, drove around the building and in my haze realized I had driven right past my parking spot. The line of cars in the stalls was unbroken.  I put the car in reverse and backed up until I saw my empty stall with the '6' peeking out from my sign. The car to my left was different than the one usually there, but Jess is a mechanic and often drives a different car home.

"So you want to study with me?" the teacher asked, looking out the window at the falling rain. "Have you prepared yourself? Are you ready to learn what I have to teach?"

"Oh yes," the young monk answered, "I have studied very hard."

I got out of the car, crossed the lot and was puzzled momentarily by the door I found myself at, a single door, not the usual double door I usually come through.  I was not awake.

"On which side of my door did you place your umbrella?" the teacher asked.

The young monk's thoughts flew back to the moment when he closed his umbrella and leaned it on the wall beside the door. He could not remember, his thoughts had not been on the umbrella, but only with the interview before him. "I don't remember," he said, "is where I placed my umbrella of importance?"

"Until you wake up and learn to pay absolute attention to every moment and what it holds I cannot teach you anything," the teacher answered.

The tow truck driver said; "Once we have the wheels off the ground we're supposed to pull the car to the impound lot. But I can see this was just an honest mistake. We have the option to refuse to tow. I'll do that, and I'll call the city but they don't usually rescind tickets."

He got on his radio while I hurried to get my keys. By the time I was back he had my car back on its own wheels and was trying to talk the City out of the ticket, but they said no. But at least I avoided the impound lot which would have cost $480.00 plus the parking ticket to retrieve my vehicle.  As is the parking ticket will cost me $40.00. The person who was parked in stall 76 when I came home will remain unknown. 

Next time I park my KIA I will be awake, even if I am falling down from exhaustion.  A nudge to awaken… so be it.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Clinging and the backward 'C'

Life Rocks!
I must say we've made great progress at the job of purging and organizing this past week. In the living room my goal was to get rid of enough books/dvds to completely empty the bookshelf we'd stuck on top of the secretary desk.

I was a bit ruthless. Dvd's we'd not watched in ages or would not likely watch again went out. A great pile of them. A great pile of books, including some I really loved, but my heart was steel. 

There's a "Freecycle" table next to the front entry downstairs. The dvds went to a friend down the hall who came by while I was busy purging, the books to the Freecycle table. I had my doubts if some of the philosophy and history books would go but they flew.

Contents which were staying were then redistributed between the remaining bookcases, the empty one was cleaned and dusted and carried off to the bedroom where it slid into my closet beneath my clothes and was then filled with my art supplies and such.  There's now a nice neat space in the linen closet for other things.

I bought a nice white square basket for the "disaster" towels; you know - the ones you have to keep on hand for when a grain of rice get stuck in the gasket of the dishwasher and a flood ensues? That new basket went on the top shelf of the linen closet, with the disaster towels rolled in it. Since I can't really reach that shelf I've been throwing the folded towels up there, and they magically unfolded themselves on the journey, arriving to lie in odd configurations on a shelf I can't reach to straighten without a ladder. 

I'm not sure if it's just this building or if this is the new norm everywhere, but any time a neighbour comes over they have to inspect our entire place, so you feel an obligation to be at least reasonably presentable at all times. This building has a dozen differently configured units, and each configuration can be flipped right or left, so there are dozens of combinations and there seems to be an obsession about which one you have and how you use the rooms. "Do you have a 'C', or 'Z'? Mine's a backward 'C', or "I have an 'L'." The 'L' is a studio, with the room we use as a living room, plus a kitchen/dining room, plus of course the bathroom and linen closet combo.  Pauline downstairs has an 'L' and uses the 'den' as her bedroom, shoehorning her sofa and living area in the six foot extension past the kitchen cupboards.

We have a backward 'C'. We use the 'den' as a living room, and the kitchen/dining room as kitchen and dining room. Of course we also have a bedroom. A neighbour who visited a few days ago inspected our place then said he has the 'L', uses the den as his office during the day and has a Murphy bed he sleeps on. I know someone with a 'L' who has boxes lining every wall with a single recliner in the middle of the dining area facing a TV on the wall. I don't think she even has a bed. The wall of boxes bristles with hangers and broomsticks, mop sticks, odd bits of unidentifiable metal. I don't know how she finds anything. More to the point I don't know how she keeps from putting out an eye!

I guess what fascinates us about all these others' homes is behind what someone signing themselves as  Sauveteur commented on Apartment Therapy a couple of years back; "Every home tells the story of the person or people who live there. All you need to do is open the door and the story that your house is trying to tell the world will immediately say what you would rather keep a secret."       

When a first-time visitor came a few days ago, I expected him to come in and sit down in the living room as invited. Instead he walked around (I was a bit shocked) and looked at everything. He asked about our configuration, the backwards 'C'.  As we talked he looked around, with bored disinterest, like you look at the health posters on the doctor's exam room wall, at the pictures of my parents, the bleached and long-dead turtle shell I picked up beside a dusty country road 30 years ago, the seashells, the paintings on the walls, the model ship in the case, my "pile-of-books" coffee table. These sentimental "treasures" of mine meant nothing to him. They didn't even rouse his curiosity.

One basic Buddhist teaching is that there is suffering in life, and that we suffer to the degree we crave and cling. So is the secret revealed by my home that I cling too much to the past? The art is old, the photos are of people who are gone. Seashells, such lovely forms but the animals who built them are long, long dead. Old rusting boxes, for pencils, cough drops and dusting powder; and aside from my medical references and nature books (identification of birds, plants, mushrooms, trees, etc.) I prefer old books. Books about people going back to childhood homes and towns and finding the town or themselves irrevocably changed.

There is an antidote to unhealthy clinging in Buddhism, the eight-fold path that shows us how to live with moderation. I'm doing my best to get this place organized and uncluttered, but even more I need to stop clinging to the past. The past is (literally) no place to stay. It's simply the place you journeyed  from, physically but even more importantly, metaphorically; Wendell Berry said;  …the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home. ~ The Unforeseen Wilderness    

Thursday, June 26, 2014

What do you do when an @$$hole throws rocks?

"[here] is an idea that is difficult for Westerners to accept: when someone harms us, they create their own suffering. They strengthen habits that imprison them in a cycle of pain and confusion.  …when they harm us, we unintentionally become the means of their undoing. Had they looked on us with loving-kindness, however, we’d be the cause of their happiness. 

But what’s true for them is also true for me. The way I regard those who hurt me today will determine how I experience the world in the future. In any encounter, we have a choice: we can strengthen our resentment or our understanding and empathy. We can widen the gap between ourselves and others or lessen it." *

Ask me about this most of the time and I'm all bobble-head smiley-face you betcha. Buddhism ROCKS! But tonight for a good long stretch of the drive home after a board meeting my gutter "French" got one hell of a workout.

Granted, I wasn't the only one. As we spilled out of the board room the air was positively blue. The atmosphere in the meeting was so taut you could have used it as a trampoline. There was a lawyer at the table, not for decoration, but to try and keep a lid on.

The person who was the cause for all the swearing is married to the person who was president of our board last year. She was doing a great job until she had a stroke which affected her ability to do the job properly. The board had to finally ask her to resign. This made her furious and her belligerent, domineering husband decided to avenge her honour by nominating himself to the new board with the intent of ripping us all (and me in particular) to shreds.

He sent a barrage of angry, verbally abusive e-mails even before the term's work began and tonight he criticized every breath I've drawn since joining the board several years ago. Everything bad that has happened since 2011 has been my fault. 

One of Buddha’s disciples went to him and said, “Master, what do I do about my enemies who throw rocks at me and call me names?”

Buddha said, “You have no enemies. Hatred is a defilement of the mind, a defilement you can mindfully overcome.”

This is my challenge. A test, as it were, not of my (ahem) "French" skills but of my ability to remain calm and compassionate while this 6' 7" man is looming over 5' 0" me, determined to intimidate me, since he blames me for ousting his wife, because as vice-president I had to finish out her term.

I want to experience the world in a positive light, not from a fearful and defensive position. I suspect by the end of this I will have learned a great deal more about mindfully overcoming the defilement of the mind which occurs when someone throws rocks at me and calls me names.

Or I will have taken up voo-doo, the kind where you make dolls, say incantations over them and stab them with pins. I'd say the chances are about 50/50.

*paraphrased from Pema Chödron's book No Time To Lose...

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Fatoumata and the peanut farm

Back: Bintou, Fatoumata, Selimata, Djelika, Sitan, Front: Bakoro, Tenin
Our KIVA loan this time goes to the seven members of the group BENKADI 2, all of whom are married women. They average 36 years of age and have six children each. Most live in traditional families in Diomatene, a village in the 3rd administrative region of the Republic of Mali. 

Like Fatoumata, who is standing second from the left in the back row in the photo, they all grow peanuts which are a staple food of the diet in Mali. Like all of her partners in the group she will use her part of the loan to hire someone to plow her 1 hectare (about 2.5 acre) field, and purchase seeds, fertilizer and herbicides to help control the weeds. 

The women work with the microfinance institution Soro Yiriwaso, a partner of Save the Children,  in order to access the funds they need to prepare their fields, plant and reap a good harvest. This group is on their fifth farm loan with Soro Yiriwaso and have paid back all their previous loans.

After the harvest, their produce is sold to customers in the village and at nearby markets. Fatoumata anticipates she will make 140,000 francs CFA ($290.00 USD) from selling her produce. This will enable her to pay back her part of the loan, as well as to help in meeting day-to-day family expenses. (Think about it, six months of back-breaking farm work for a payout of $290.00. )

Soro Yiriwaso doesn't just make loans, it also understands in many cases poverty is not just about lack of money, and the alleviation of poverty requires more than access to capital and an understanding of business. So Soro Yiriwaso also has a Family and Community Empowerment program which offers access to health care services and education for its borrowers and their children.

Many of KIVA's microfinance partners offer access to medical care for the borrower and their family members for a small monthly charge. They can receive regular check ups from a physician, as well as low cost medicine and hospital referrals. As you can tell from the photo, several of the ladies were expecting new arrivals when this picture was taken. Access to pre-natal care and a midwife are vital to the survival of Africa's women, where so many die in childbirth or related infections.

The inability to treat health related issues has the potential to cause families to fall back into the cycle of poverty despite running a successful business. Support services also can include educational workshops in disease prevention and domestic violence.

For $25.00 you can help farmers and all kinds of business people in the Third World improve their lives in so many ways by making a small amount of otherwise unattainable credit available to them.
Visit today and find a borrower whose story resonates with you, and lend that 1st $25.00.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

How do we find joy and peace?

I went shopping yesterday afternoon. On the way home I was driving in the right hand lane of two lanes, driving just over the upper edge of the speed limit because the traffic around me was moving at the same speed. I was approaching an intersection where I turn right. There is a dedicated lane for this which branches off some way ahead. I signalled my intention to turn before I reached the branch because the curve requires you to slow somewhat.

Suddenly I was passed by a driver who then cut me off very sharply, but at this point I reached the turn-off so I just veered off into the turn lane. The light was red and I had to wait for an opening in the oncoming traffic.

The driver who had cut me off was sitting at the light behind two or three other cars. The passenger, a young man hardly more than a teenager, rolled down his window and began screaming at me, gesticulating and making threatening gestures. My window was rolled up and the fan was on, so I didn't hear what he said, but his face said it clearly enough.

I was puzzled by his anger and its intensity. I had not caused them any delay. They had only just come up behind me before the driver passed me. There was an empty lane in which to pass, and 100 feet ahead of us there were already cars sitting at the red light.  Maybe the fact that I was able to turn and integrate into the cross traffic despite being cut off, while he still sat waiting for the light  to change irritated him, but when you drive you sometimes catch the light green, and sometimes it's red. 

But I had been upset by something just as silly earlier in the day, not as upset as he was, but enough to keep me stewing for a couple of hours. I find I'm quick to talk peace, but slow to practice it. My temper can be ignited in an instant, and if I allow it to erupt I may say and do things in anger which I deeply regret later. In this case I said nothing. I let the matter drop and walked away.

I have been practicing not to respond in anger to provocations that might have had me lashing out in times past. This can be a difficult practice, denying one's self the symbolic victory. Walking away from an argument without having to get in "the last word". The practice of peace often means waging an internal battle with yourself. So why bother? There's certainly satisfaction in telling someone who has their facts wrong and is defending their position in an obnoxious, even hurtful way that they are an idiot and don't know what they are talking about. But it doesn't bring you peace. The other person goes away angry, and after the momentary thrill of triumph wears off you feel the shame of not living up to your own standards.  

An 8th Century Buddhist master named Shantideva had plenty to say about the "do as I say, not as I do" approach to peace. He said these habitual patterns of aggression we practice are the source of constant suffering, our own as well as others, and if we continue in these habit patterns and allow them to rule our behaviour and thoughts we will never find joy and peace.

Aggression begets aggression. The only way to overcome hate and fear is through love. Shantideva had no trouble calling a spade a spade. He said that as long as we justify our own critical spirits and self-righteousness, joy and peace will always elude us. We may well point our fingers at "wrongdoers", but until we learn to deal with compassion with everyone, there will be no peace, in our hearts or in the world.  

How do you feel about it? What's the difference between preserving the peace and being a doormat?  Have you worked out a strategy for a peaceful life or do you just scream when you're angry and let the chips fall where they may? 

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A five-minute game and a lesson in life

Although it didn't occur to me for a long while, playing the Chinese tile game of Mah-Jong on the computer is not just a nice quiet way to pass the time, it teaches some interesting lessons along the way.

Barnyard Mah-jong
First of all, in many computer versions you can choose tiles with the Arabic numbers we use every day, 1, 2, 3 etc, and graphics we easily recognize as symbols for the seasons, or you can use the more traditional Chinese symbols. You can even download a set with barnyard animals, fruit, vegetables and a cartoon farmer on them.

The computer lays out the tiles in a specific pattern. The app I use has about 300 different patterns, only eight or nine of which I've actually used so far. You're timed. You have five minutes to remove all the tiles by matching them to an identical tile somewhere in the layout. The catch is that the tile must be exposed on three of its four edges, or it cannot be removed from the board. Difficulty is determined by the layout, as some layouts leave many tiles exposed and some leave only a few exposed.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter Tiles
Obviously the challenge is reduced when the patterns on the tiles are familiar to you, like those to the right. Your brain doesn't have to work as hard at pattern recognition on these tiles as on the unfamiliar Chinese symbol set, but since pattern recognition is a skill we need to preserve as we get older I use the Chinese set. I admit I still haven't completely figured out the matches in the seasonal and flower tiles.

I've tried numerous approaches and I've learned it's better if I organize my search beginning in the upper right hand corner. My brain observes more quickly and accurately working right and down and then to left centre to upper left corner, which is counter-intuitive in a culture in which we read left to right.

In practice of course you search over the entire board, or should, but that's generally a distraction and I will frequently empty 60% of the middle and right side of the board without ever touching the left tiles, except perhaps to pick up a match for a straggler. 

Chinese symbol tiles
These searches sharpen your observation skills, because it's not always easy to see that a tile is exposed. As you search back and forth for a matching tile you work your short-term memory. You often find a different matching set while seeking a particular tile, but to improve your time you need to be able to remember which tile you are looking for though you come across two or three matches which distract you from your original quest.

This is much like multi-tasking in daily life, a skill women are supposedly better at than men. Stir the soup, stop Jr. from climbing a tree, change the baby's diapers, run out and throw rocks at the neighbour's dog who is chasing the chickens, run back in and stir the pot… or keep a single tile in mind as several other pairs pop out at you. I find I am less and less successful at this the longer I play. My fastest times are my early ones. My brain tires quickly, but not as quickly as it did when I began playing.

Then you come to a point where there are still 15 or 16 tiles on the board, and you can't see a match anywhere. You go "match blind". At times the two tiles are adjacent, sometimes one is up in the corner, alone, or doesn't appear to be exposed. But you know there's a match. The solution is there, if you persist. And once you find that one match it often uncovers a tile that then allows you to end the game in seconds.

This says to me that most problems have solutions, maybe not obvious ones. I have to look stop, think, consider all the options. 

And  if there are no tiles left on the board which match in that configuration, the app shuffles the tiles, and then progress can be made. Beating my head against a wall which can't be fixed gets me nowhere. Sometimes you need someone to shuffle the tiles. This may be advice from a calm, reasonable friend, your doctor, your spiritual adviser; the person you trust to listen. Someone who has your best long-term interests at heart, and won't just tell you what you want to hear. 

And then I look at the timer, and while occasionally I finish under in 5:00 minutes, it almost always says 5:28, or 7:45 or 8:10. And I don't care, because I'm here to relax, not stress out. Decisions made in haste are often regretted.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

You can't step in the same stream twice…

From Claire and Dave's Round the World Adventure
Or so says an old Zen proverb. The water, representing time and life, flows on. And your own body is in a constant cosmic dance of atomic change, the exchange of mass into energy, of the chemistry into electricity into thoughts that jangle along from neuron to neuron in your brain, sparkling in and out of existence. No, you are not the same "one" moment to moment. A single thought can change your entire perspective on life.

It's something we talk about a lot, how do we stay here, in this moment, not resisting the lives we have, which many would see as restricted but which we enjoy.

Tony said this morning after we'd finished our coffee, "I'm trying to think of myself as a twig floating on a stream. Some days I move right along with the flow, some days I'm caught in an eddy and all I can do is circle round and round. No energy to escape it, no use fighting." And he headed off for a rest, after having been up for about 45 minutes.

The slipstream we call "life" moves, and we can never step in the same spot twice. If I scoop it up in my hands it spills through my fingers. I have in the past resisted and found myself circling in eddies of frustration and anger, sliding over precipices of fear and guilt and dashed on the rocks of hostility and remorse. Now I'm working on refusing to attach drama to the trivial events of the day, checking my impatience, training myself to bear ordinary discomforts and live in serenity.

No matter the circumstances life is best lived in the moment. I can't see what I'm rushing toward. The past is gone and cannot be changed. Feeling anger at how I was treated decades ago (or yesterday) just makes me unhappy. Letting go of those feelings, they are free to flow away. Holding on to grudges from the past is like throwing a dam across life's stream and then fighting to keep my head above ever-deepening water. It burns up enormous stores of energy. 

The buoyancy I need to stay afloat is only present in the moment, as my ever-changing self steps in the ever-changing stream of life.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rip Van Winkle - a Metaphor for Growing Old?

Almost everyone knows the story of Rip Van Winkle who was the main character in a short story by American author Washington Irving published in 1819.

Van Winkle's story was set in the years before and after the American Revolution. Van Winkle, a colonial villager of Dutch ancestry, lived in a village in the foothills of the Catskills Mountains. He preferred to wander in the woods and spent more time telling stories to the children than he did working his farm or keeping his house in good repair. His industrious wife nagged him constantly.

One day, when he found his wife's nagging unbearable, Van Winkle hiked up the mountainside with his dog. From high up the mountain he heard thunder, and as he looked around he saw a man wearing clothing worn generations earlier in Holland. The man was carrying a beer keg up the trail, hailed him by name and asked for his help.

Together, they carried the keg up the mountain until they came to a hollow where Rip discovered the thunder was from a group of ornately dressed, silent, bearded men playing a noisy game of nine-pins. He did not ask who they are or how they knew his name. Instead, he drank some of the beer offered from the keg and soon fell asleep.

He awoke to discover shocking changes in himself. His musket was rotted and rusty, his clothes were rags, his beard and hair were long and white and his dog was gone.

Stumbling down the trail to to his village Van Winkle found no one he recognized. He learned that his wife had died and that his close friends had died, fallen in war or moved to other places. He was also disturbed to find another man called Rip Van Winkle was his own son, now grown up with children of his own.

Rip learned he had been away from the village for at least twenty years. However, an old resident recognized him and Rip's grown daughter took him in and cared for him.

And so we came to ask ourselves as we talked tonight; did Washington Irving actually write Rip Van Winkle's story as a metaphor for growing old?  For us it aging has not been a gradual dawning. It's really just hit us psychologically in the last little while. Suddenly we need grab bars and a bath bench and arms on the toilet, daily help to shower and care for our home. Admittedly this has probably come a good 10-15 years earlier for us than for the average Canadian. Even though we both have excellent general health we both have muscle disorders that compromise our strength and balance. This diminishing strength does not mean a reduction of one's worth as a person, but it is certainly something you need to be prepared for psychologically.

But we both admit it "getting old" seemed to occur so suddenly, though it's not actually been sudden. It seems one day we were 25, 35. We were young. Our children were small or running in and out the door, in school. There was always "Winkle's stress" of keeping up with business, suffering a fractious boss, dealing with house repairs, mortgage payments. Parents who didn't approve. Foster children who needed all the love and acceptance you could pour into them and more. Times of illness, financial struggles. These were the cares, and the joys, of youth. 

Did we sleepwalk through those times, drinking deeply the draught of everyday life while those who peopled our childhoods died, fell in wars and moved on? When your mother dies when you are 35 you don't realize that 35 years later she will still move through your dreams, but as in life, on her own terms. The thunder of anger long cooled will echo in your dreams, but so will the sweetness of baby kisses and of the kisses that led to those babies.   

One day you wake from your living slumber, look in the mirror, and see that you are actually old. And like Rip Van Winkle, you awaken to it all.  Or maybe you have just awakened, period.

Is there a story, a myth, that you have found personal meaning in that's perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, or different than a superficial reading of the story might suggest?  


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Glorious (glorious) Garden Day!

My garden beds out front had definitely gotten away from me, weed-wise. There were several four-foot-high yellow alfalfas, as many goat's beards that tall and a volunteer Artemisia absinthium which I swear grew overnight into a bush three foot high and just as wide.  The dandelions were galloping along at a fearsome rate and bindweed was strangling everything it could drag itself to and throw a hook on.

Ian had come last Sunday and planted eight annuals, red and white petunias, and red geraniums, and a lovely Red Twig Dogwood Cornus Alba 'Elegantissima', because once the bulbs have fizzled there's not much going on in a perennial garden for the next few weeks, and I needed something that will just sit there and bloom all summer.

The poppies have enormous fat buds, but so far show no sign of opening. Everything else is gulping in sun and moisture and warmth and growing like stink, but blooms on most will come and go. I'm so desperate to fill in the empty space between my dark-leaved coral bells that I left a vigorous sulpher cinquefoil, a decision I am bound to regret in time.

I finally called Kevin, our landscape maintenance contractor, and cried "Help!" I asked him to send two sturdy young men I could supervise, as they tend to leave the weeds and pull the flowers. And I ordered a truckload of  shredded cedar mulch, the kind that's dyed black. It will warm the soil in spring and keep the bleeping weeds down.

So, we arranged for  two young men at 2:00 pm today, and instead I got two young men at a quarter to 10:00, which meant I was still in my jams and had just poured my morning cuppa when the phone rang announcing their arrival. Aiiiiii. I dressed, wet down my cowlick, grabbed my pruning shears and the walker and wobbled my way downstairs.

Fred and Kyle hit the beds and the way of the weed was gone. GONE.  That Artemisia was a pill to get out. For something that had grown up in two weeks it had a formidable root system that required digging, then prying out with a long handled shovel and, in the end, pruning shears to get the roots. We had no choice but to leave some root in. There were other plants too close. It's gonna come back. I'm going to fight that thing until the day I turn toes up or sell this place. But for now it's gone.

Still needs a bit of broom work
It took a good two hours to get all the beds weeded. But once the weeds were gone out came that beautiful black mulch. Boy the colours just pop against that mulch. Every leaf and every (right now sparse) blossom, though the Puschkinia scilloides (striped squills) are blooming. I wanted the shredded stuff because the nuggets get off in the lawn and when picked up by the mower they become unguided missiles.

After the beds were mulched we set the new topiaries in the new pots we bought last fall. I still have to go out and finish those off. I have ivy to wire in around the base, but we anchored the topiaries with a concrete block so our famous wind (or one of drunken tenants) doesn't pluck them from the pot and hurl them into the street, which is what happened with our last topiaries. 

It was a good four hours work for two and I probably did what one of them did in 30 minutes, but I worked off and on the entire time. But it looks great. I need to replace two shrubs which were severely damaged by the winter, and am not sure what to plant. Needs to be hardy to zone 3, deciduous, able to take morning sun, but not requiring full sun. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

KIVA Loan for June 2014

Domero, 58, lives in Pana-on, Misamis Occidental, Philippines. He is the father of three children, and provides taxi and transportation services in his village to make a living. For more than six years, he has earned well enough to provide for the family. A previous KIVA loan was used to buy spare parts and accessories for his motorcycle and was successfully repaid.

Now he needs a small loan to cover licenses renewal costs so he can continue to provide services to his customers. His goal is to buy a new motorcycle which will be more reliable.

Domero has been a member of GDMPC since 2009. In the future, Domero hopes to expand and improve his business to earn a better living.

Gata Daku Multi-Purpose Cooperative (GDMPC) was founded in 1992 by 32 farmer-members to empower people by providing livelihood opportunities and other support services. Today, it has over 15,000 members located in upland, lowland and coastal regions of the Philippines, and offers credit, savings, education, and various social services. KIVA is lending partner with GDMPC, and KIVA lenders like us can extend a helping hand to people like Domero, who have no access to bank loans. We can help them succeed through their own hard work. 

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The lotus in a sea of fire

It hasn't been the greatest week; I've had a couple of subluxed ribs and a hip that cried "foul ball" with every step, and a frustrating realization that physically I've lost a lot of strength this year.

Then there was the deep and painful sadness of losing my dearly loved niece. That same day, after an absence of over two years, our youngest son arrived, and though he was supposed to be on holidays he spent most of the time at his brother's working. We did have a nice dinner together, and one evening we talked for a couple of hours, but we did not have the time together I'd hoped for. There is a discomfort I do not understand between us, like marching in a parade with a jagged piece of quartz in your shoe that you cannot stop to remove.

Today one of the men who stood for office at the AGM, who has not yet been legally integrated as a board member, inserted himself in the middle of a contracting dispute he knows nothing about, called the contractor to issue orders, and then publicly tore into our building manager in a rude, insulting and hostile manner. In his correspondence he made it clear he intends to "go to war" against both the management company and the board members who served last year, and that he plans to make our lives very unpleasant.

So here we have a week ripe with grounds for practice. Pain, death and loss, confusion, heartache, expectations, disappointment, anger and dread. Now, does that sound like your life as well? Maybe no one in your family died this week but I'll bet you had your share of the rest, in one form or the other.

Lotus blossom by Leesa Brown
Did I jump up from my chair and say "Whoopee! A chance to practice!" No, I sat here and shed more than a few tears and said some words that shouldn't pass the lips of anyone according to the Buddha, who took a dim view of swearing. But Martin Bayne has a nice phrase, "Turning the stream of compassion within," and despite my initial reactions, that's what I'm working on doing.

I can't do much about my pain, except ask that my doctor allow me to go back to my former dose of pain meds, so I can function. I have lived with grief before and will again, unless I beat everyone else I love to that punch. Susan and I had talked about her impending death. She was very strong. She was not afraid of death so much as the process, which is a pretty rational fear, and a good argument for the patient's right to die when they have had enough. I am missing her already.

I'm at a loss about the young man who is my son, hoping the problems we had were the result of his unexpected deadline and not some unnamed issue. I know how easily one can lose that connection. I hear from too many people whose bonds with their children have slipped, leaving them broken-hearted and adrift.

Which then leaves me wondering how I deal with my feelings of anger with our bully. He's had a difficult time this past year. He's a man of enormous intelligence and courage. He has overcome an injury he was told would leave him a paraplegic, and in the last year he has left his wheelchair and braces behind, he's retrained for a new job and is working again. I know these good things about him, I like him very much, yet he was hostile, disrespectful, and verbally abusive, which did not fit into the picture of him I know.

Joan Halifax says; "…compassion is comprised of the capacity to see clearly into the nature of suffering. It is that ability to really stand strong and to recognize also that I'm not separate from this suffering. But that is not enough, because compassion, which activates the motor cortex, means that we actually aspire to transform suffering. And if we're so blessed, we engage in activities that transform suffering. But compassion has another component, and that component is really essential. That component is that we cannot be attached to outcome."

That's a hard concept to accept because I want to feel less pain, physically and emotionally. If I talk to someone I want them to feel better, to not be angry, bitter, ready to lash out and certainly not to blame me for the pain they are feeling.

When you try to express compassion for someone, you find it has enemies. People will say, "I don't want your pity!", "You don't understand what I'm going through!". Righteous indignation and moral outrage are the enemies of compassion. This is a big deal for me and something I need to sit with. How do you express moral outrage, or even opposition to a philosophy without losing compassion for the person who defends it?  Suggestions welcomed. (The first one that comes to mind is to mind my own business, but sometimes it's impossible to do that.)

But the first person you must have compassion for, before you can extend it to others, is yourself.  So once again I fall back on Lewis Richmond's mantra:

May I be filled with loving kindness
May I be free from suffering
May I be happy and at peace

May we be filled with loving kindness
May we be free from suffering
May we be happy and at peace

May all beings be filled with loving kindness
May all beings be free from suffering
May all beings be happy and at peace

All of us, you, me, the boy, the bully and the returning soldier...  

Monday, June 02, 2014


I was out in front, murdering dandelions, waiting for the landscaper to show up when my neighbour Pauline on the ground floor popped out on her patio and asked if I'd seen her place since her son-in-law and his dad redid it?

The short answer is no. She'd gone to her daughter's for two weeks while the son-in-law and his dad, who are professional contractors, gutted her place and completely redid it. I didn't even realize she was back.

So, after the landscaper left I parked my shoes at her patio door and had the tour. I don't know which emotion I felt first. Envy and covetousness are high on the list. Her place is smaller than ours, basically two rooms and a bath, so about 360 sq ft. The area we use as a kitchen/dining room serves as her living room as well, and her "den" serves as her bedroom.

But her redo was so well done I was hard pressed to figure out what was missing. Her walls have been repainted a pale dove grey with crisp white trim. The floors are a high class walnut laminate except for the entry and bath, which have grey slate tile.

Her maple kitchen cupboards have been replaced by white glossy ones with modern handles. That maddening corner jog which hogs half of the storage room in the kitchen has a nifty two-tiered lazy Susan which turns and then pulls out so you can use that entire corner. She has a new granite counter top, new sink and taps. Up on top there's an angled corner cupboard. New white "railway" backsplash and new stainless steel appliances, including an 18" wide dishwasher.

In the bathroom the fixtures are new, and there's new laundry room cabinetry with built in laundry hampers. New high-quality closet doors which slide, allowing access to everything inside. Everything colour matched and simple and clean and slick, including framed prints from the WalMart. Restful to look at. Fantastic. It looks like something from a magazine.

I came home, threw away my bag of dead dandelions, flopped in my chair and looked at our living room. Just the one room. There are too many books, and too many bookshelves. The coffee table is enormous and we bark our shins on it regularly but it's shaped like a stack of books and has three drawers handy for old birthday cards and bits of junk you are too lazy to walk to the garbage can with, like empty spools of tape, and lists of to-do's I won't ever.

From where I'm sitting I can count ten large seashells, a rolled up python skin, a turtle shell, a pine cone a foot long, 15 paintings, 14 boxes (I seem to have amassed a collection of boxes, most of which arrived by way of inheritance. One of them is full of miniature dolls and toys.) There are three clocks, two of which don't work, three model ships, a half dozen baskets and a naked paper mache cherub hanging from a bracket near the door.

An embroidered valance from India hangs off one bookshelf.  A Buddha raises a hand in blessing (or defense), a butsudan sits unused (but decorative) behind him. A prayer bowl, a few bells and framed family portraits complete the disarray of object d'arte within my gaze. Aside from the furniture of course, a flowered sofa, two burgundy rockers, a Windsor chair and an antique secretary. Oh, and the TV, DVD player, three computers and i-pad and two readers.

Anyone in his right mind would have to admit this is altogether too much crap in one 11 x 12 ft room, but aside from the mundane sofa/chairs/TV/electronics every piece has a story attached. I picked up the abalone shell from a tidal pond on Metakatla Peninsula in 1978, the piece of coral came by way of Tony's dad who got it in the 1940s from the Red Sea, the conch was picked up on a island beach after a storm by my friend Audrey, while she sailed around the Bahamas with a friend in the 70s. And 75 years ago the snake made the poor decision to drop from a branch onto the head and neck of Tony's dad in Ecuador. It skinned out to about seven feet, was preserved by who knows what method and has spent many a year rolled up on shelves and mantels.

There's an olive wood Bible box, which was a gift from Tony's great-uncle Albert to his grandmother in 1901, acquired in Jerusalem, and the list goes on. Every object suggests a person, most of them long vanished from our lives but still very much in our hearts and memories.  

The whole point of this rambling missive is that while I absolutely love Pauline's new digs, they could belong to anyone. They could be an upscale hotel suite. The thing that's missing is any hint that Pauline lives there. There's no hint of the wise-cracking heels-up-kicking Pauline herself. The personality is missing.  I didn't see a single shelf, box or basket. Where the dickens is her stuff? You can't get to be 72 years old and not have accumulated any stuff! It's not normal.

So yes, I'm torn. Between sleek, modern and beautifully serene (i.e. stuff-free) and the hodge-podge of memories represented by this roomful of items I probably couldn't even get a thrift shop to take. It's all tat (i.e. rubbish, the kind of junk sold to unsuspecting tourists) as the English would say, but it's my tat, and for now I'm hanging onto it, and even mourning a few pieces that disappeared along the way.

Where do you stand on the issue? Are you happiest with a zen-like atmosphere or do you treasure great-aunt Agatha's doilies and still have them draped over the back of your sofa? How does your home reflect you, or does it?